Posts Tagged ‘N.T. Wright’

Imputation is a beautiful doctrine

May 25, 2017

Speaking of John Piper, years ago he got into a public feud with N.T. Wright (both sides were polite and respectful) over the doctrine of imputation. Wright, as he often does, said, in so many words, “Yes, but…” He didn’t disagree that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone, only that the means by which the Reformers (and their ancient predecessors) arrived at this formulation was incorrect. Wright’s takeaway, as I recall from his book-length response to Piper, was that Christ’s righteousness is not imputed to us believers.

I don’t remember his argument. And nothing I say here detracts from my love and affection for Wright, whose book The Resurrection of the Son of God almost single-handedly (through the Holy Spirit, of course) returned me to the evangelical fold after many years wandering in the mainline Protestant wilderness. But Wright wrote as if imputation was some kind of alien concept foisted onto the Bible by the Reformers.

In the seven or eight years since I read Wright’s book Justification, I am even more Reformed in my thinking, and more evangelical. Therefore I’m much more sympathetic with the classic Reformation emphasis on imputation—I certainly hope it’s true!

Therefore, I was delighted to read in (United Methodist) theologian Thomas Oden’s systematic theology, Classic Christianity, that double-imputation (our sins to Christ on the cross and Christ’s righteousness to us through faith) represents the consensual teaching of the Church from the beginning. Allow me quote from his book at length. (I’m leaving out most of his citations of ancient, medieval, and Reformation-era sources. There are many.) I hope it’s helpful to my readers.

To impute (logizomai) is to credit as a virtue to another or to charge as a fault to another. The New Testament makes frequent use of the bookkeeping analogy: imputing or crediting to another’s account. God’s grace ascribes to our account what we do not deserve.

The language of imputation has entered conspicuously into justification teaching as seen in Paul’s crucial phrase “faith is credited [logizetai] as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Our debts are charged to Christ’s account. Christ’s obedience is offered for our deficient account. “Faith may be said to be imputed to us for righteousness as it is the sole condition of our acceptance” (Wesley, NUNT at Rom. 4:9…)

The imputation metaphors are found throughout classic Christian teaching: Adam’s sin has been reckoned to flow into the history of all humanity, so Adam’s debt is “charged to our account.” Oppositely, our sin has been reckoned to Christ. Christ paid the penalty for sin, becoming a curse for us. Our own sins are mercifully not being counted against those who trust Christ’s righteousness (Rom. 4:22-24; 2 Cor. 5:19), which is reckoned to the believer.

Justification teaching employs a twofold reverse in the bookkeeping metaphor. It indicates both the discharging (nonimputation) from sin and the crediting (imputation) of Christ’s righteousness. Debt is discharged; substitutionary payment is credited. The Epistle to Diognetus called this “the sweet exchange.”

Sin is not charged against the believing sinner, for “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). Christ’s righteousness is accredited to the believing sinner, who is “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Phil. 3:9, italics added…).

The believer is treated as actually righteous in relation to God. This is why my ethical deeds are not the basis for gaining standing in God’s presence. Only in the cross of the Lord of glory is that possible, where sin is forgiven without offending God’s own righteousness.

But how can God remain holy if sin is easily dismissed? That is just the point: it is not easily dismissed. It required a cross, a death, a burial. The cross is an event in history, a sacrificial offering substituting Christ’s goodness for our sin. The burden of our sin is transferred directly from our shoulders to Christ’s cross (Rom. 3:21-25; 2 Cor. 5:21). On the cross there occurred a salvation event which constituted “a transfer from the Law to the Gospel, from the Synagogue to the Church, from many sacrifices to one Victim” (Leo I, Sermon 68.3).[†]

My favorite part is in that last paragraph: “But how can God remain holy if sin is easily dismissed? That is just the point: it is not easily dismissed. It required a cross, a death, a burial.” Amen! When too many contemporary preachers and teachers dismiss substitutionary atonement (as my clergy acquaintance did in our conversation last week), they are impugning God’s holiness: God’s forgiveness of us sinners comes at an infinitely high cost!

† Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 594-5.

Maundy Thursday Sermon 2017

April 13, 2017

In tonight’s Maundy Thursday service, I preached a series of three short homilies on scripture related to this night. While I read the scripture for each homily, some of our youth acted it out. The following is my original manuscript of these homilies.

Homily 1 Text: John 13:1-20

Belle (Emma Watson) dancing with the Beast.

Last weekend, I saw Disney’s new live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast. Somehow, watching flesh-and-blood human beings act out the story—as opposed to cartoon characters—brought home to me just how beastly the beast’s behavior was toward Belle. Think about it: The Beast, whom the audience quickly ends up rooting for, was literally holding a young woman captive in his castle—trying to make her fall in love with him. Because only the giving and receiving of love will undo the curse of the enchantress who turned this vain, uncaring, self-centered prince into a beast in the first place.

It’s as if the Beast were saying, “You better love me or else—or else I’ll never let you out of this prison!” It’s insane… It’s so wrong! Read the rest of this entry »

John Piper: How to handle guilt over sexual sin

March 28, 2017

What follows is the most helpful sermon on sexual sin and guilt I’ve ever heard (or read, in this case). It’s by John Piper. He delivered it years ago at the Passion Conference for Christian college students, held in Atlanta—at which time, being the smug, liberal seminarian that I was, I would have rolled my eyes and thought, “John Piper!” (Yes, I know… I need to work on forgiving myself for those years.) Regardless, I read the sermon now, and his words are the balm of Gilead.

If you have tried to live a Christian life, you know firsthand the power of guilt. I think Piper is right, however, to say that guilt over sexual sin in particular is an especially powerful weapon in Satan’s arsenal. Left untreated (or unhealed), this guilt will prevent us from becoming not only what God wants us to become, but what we—at our idealistic, passionate, Spirit-filled best—dream of becoming. As Piper puts it,

The great tragedy is not mainly masturbation or fornication or acting like a peeping Tom (or curious Cathy) on the internet. The tragedy is that Satan uses the guilt of these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had, or might have, and in its place give you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures until you die in your lakeside rocking chair, wrinkled and useless, leaving a big fat inheritance to your middle-aged children to confirm them in their worldliness. That’s the main tragedy.

I have not come to Atlanta to waste your time or mine. I have come with a passion that you not waste your life. My aim is not mainly to cure you of sexual misconduct. I would like that to happen. O, God, let it happen! But mainly I want to take out of the devil’s hand the weapon that exploits the sin of your life to destroy your valiant dreams, and make your whole life a wasted worldly success.

Whatever you think you know about Piper, I suspect you’ll be surprised by the pastoral tone throughout this sermon. First, he’s no culture warrior railing against the handful of sins that culture warriors usually rail against. In fact, given his words above—and elsewhere in the sermon—about American middle-class prosperity, he isn’t holding out hope for our culture—or any culture—with or without its sexual proclivities. No culture on this side of eternity will ever be the kingdom of God.

Second, he’s speaking to a Christian audience who mostly already agree that sexual sin is truly sinful. That’s not the issue: the issue is, many of them don’t know how to handle the potentially self-destructive guilt that comes when they fall victim to it. Read the rest of this entry »

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 12: Ready for Whatever God Has in Mind

December 12, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 1:5-25

glory_cover_finalI 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.[†]

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?

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

Sermon 11-27-16: “Mary, Servant of the Lord”

December 9, 2016

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There’s a popular expression in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Expectation is a planned resentment.” Has you seen how this is true in your own experience? What God asks of Mary is beyond any expectations that she had. Yet she’s able to say “yes” to God, not because unafraid or unsure, but because she trusts that God is ultimately in control.

Please note: No video this week.

Sermon Text: Luke 1:26-38

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

Last September, there was a marathon near Philadelphia. This marathon is an important qualifying race for the Boston Marathon, so many of the runners who ran it were attempting to do just that—and this race was their last chance. A part of the race course crossed railroad tracks, and wouldn’t you know it? Despite assurances from Norfolk Southern that no train would interfere with the race, about a hundred runners got stopped by a very slow-moving train. For ten minutes. One runner quoted in the article I read missed qualifying for the Boston Marathon by eight minutes—so he would have made it if not for the train!

Can you imagine: Standing there, waiting for a slow train to pass, knowing that every passing second puts you further and further from your goal?

Heartbreaking! I mean, it’s one thing to pull a hamstring, or tear an MCL, or sprain an ankle, or—as I know from experience—suffer plantar fasciitis. These are all runners’ injuries—and runners accept these risks when they run. But to miss out on your dream of running in the Boston Marathon on account of a train, of all things? Who expects that to happen?

No one expects that!

Just like Mary would never have expected this angel to come to her and tell her about the role that she would play in bringing salvation to the world—this awesome privilege and responsibility that she would have have in giving birth to God’s Son Jesus and raising him as her son. Mary has often been called the “first Christian,” and when we consider her faithful response to God, we probably imagine that she’s a much better Christian than we are. She’s up on this pedestal and we’re way down here. We have trouble identifying with her. But in this sermon I want us to see how much we have in common with her. Read the rest of this entry »

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 4: How Will This Be?

December 4, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 1:34

glory_cover_finalMary, 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.”[†]

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 in God’s word? If so, you’re in good company! Pray that, as with Mary and Joseph, God will help you overcome your doubt.

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

We love you, Tom Wright, but haven’t you said this many times before?

October 27, 2016

No one on this blog will question my bona fides as an admirer of N.T. Wright. Heck, I just quoted him a couple of hours ago!

But I don’t think I need to read his new book on atonement. I feel like I’ve already read it, based on Scot McKnight’s blog posts about it, including this one. I had to reply to one commenter who said the following about Wright’s views on penal substitution:

He uses a lot of plural pronouns (as in “…we have paganized soteriology”) and hints at widespread distortions (as in “The danger with this kind of popular teaching, and examples of it are not hard to come by…”). As though he, and all the rest of us, have been doing it all wrong. Or is it maybe just us?

I’m a fan of his, even when I disagree, but he often does come off as being the guy who’s finally figured it all out. Most of the caricatures he tilts at are routinely spoken against by committed PSA advocates. So who and what exactly he is refuting?

To this I wrote:

Exactly! Very well said. Even Wright’s constant refrain against speaking of “heaven” as opposed to “new creation” rings a bit hollow to me—at least by the 348th time he’s labored to emphasize that distinction.

One of my eccentric hobbies is collecting sermons by Billy Graham on vinyl records. My point is, I’ve heard a lot of old sermons. Most of these are from the ’50s and ’60s. It’s true that Graham always referred to our eschatological future as “heaven,” but he never did so in a way that implied, as Wright would have us believe, that heaven was disembodied or independent of resurrection and new creation. On the contrary, he spoke of these things, too.

Wright’s “Yes, but…” approach regarding heaven also misses one important point: While I totally appreciate that Christ’s victory on the cross and his resurrection mean so much more than “heaven when I die,” I can’t escape the fact that, selfishly speaking, the best part of Christ’s victory is… ahem… heaven when I die. Say whatever you want about it, that’s incredibly good news!

That when I die, I don’t lose the best of this life, including my loved ones within it… How could that not be the best news of all?

I don’t think I’m wrong to feel that way, even as I appreciate the importance of new creation, victory over the principalities, etc.

I don’t need self-improvement. I need Jesus!

October 27, 2016

This Sunday I’m preaching on Luke 17:3-10, a collection of teachings that seems, at first, like a hodgepodge. N.T. Wright, however, believes that they are linked by our need for humility. Regarding the disciples’ plea for greater faith in verse 5 and Jesus’ response, he writes the following (emphasis mine):

Perhaps not surprisingly, the disciples realize in verse 5 that all this [i.e., what Jesus has said in vv. 1-4] will require more faith than they think they have. Jesus is quick to respond. It’s not great faith you need; it is faith in a great God. Faith is like a window through which you can see something. What matters is not whether the window is six inches or six feet high; what matters is the God that your faith is looking out on. If it’s the creator God, the God active in Jesus and the Spirit, then the tiniest little peep-hole of a window will give you access to power like you never dreamed of.[1]

So faith, like most things related to the life of the spirit, is not about us; it’s about God. Of course.

Anyway, in today’s devotional from The Mockingbird Devotional, John Zahl shares a related thought about faith (emphasis mine):

Faith means trusting Him to be all the things you need Him to be, despite your own inadequacies, and, for that matter, in light of the fact that you don’t actually know what you need or what success actually looks like. He won’t give you strength; He will be your strength.[2]

Finally, I tried to make a similar point in a sermon earlier this month about the power of the Holy Spirit in Acts 4:1-22:

Consider Peter… Even though he seems so brave and strong and powerful in today’s scripture, he wasn’t so different from that scaredy-cat that we saw the night that Jesus was arrested. He hadn’t changed that much in a just a couple of months! Especially if we consider what Paul writes about Peter in Galatians 2.

There, Paul describes a situation in which, he says, he confronted Peter “to his face” for his hypocrisy.

Why did this happen? This was a time in the early church when Jewish Christians weren’t so sure how they were supposed to relate to their non-Jewish brothers and sisters. Many of them believed that these Gentile believers had to first become Jewish—by being circumcised and following other Jewish customs. And unless or until they did these things, Jewish Christians wouldn’t mingle with them. They wouldn’t sit down at a table and share a meal.

Paul, of course, would have none of this: As he writes in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And Peter was on Paul’s side—at least at first. When Peter came to visit Paul’s church he enjoyed table fellowship with Gentiles.

Until some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem showed up—then Peter stopped associating with them. Paul says in Galatians 2:12 that Peter did this because he was “afraid of the circumcision party.”

So let’s get this straight: In Galatians 2, years after the events described in today’s scripture, this same Peter, who wasn’t even afraid of being killed as he stood before the high priest and the Sanhedrin, was afraid of other people’s opinions—he was afraid for his reputation; he was afraid of what others might think about him!

So much for brave and fearless Peter!

I’m not saying this because I think Peter is a bad guy. Not at all. I’m saying this because Peter isn’t so different from us! Aside from being filled with the Spirit in today’s scripture, he was mostly the same old person he always was!

I know it seems obvious to say out loud, but Peter’s success as an apostle isn’t because he—to whatever extent he had been sanctified—had become a much holier person; it was because of God’s power working in him.

Our Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification, while true and fitting, is also potentially dangerous, as I’ve discussed in the past. “Yes, yes,” we say, “even sanctification is a gift of God.” But is it really? Or is it something we achieve as we apply ourselves to the task? Is it, in other words, self-improvement by another name?

I don’t need self-improvement. I need Jesus! At every moment! Because I’m a disaster left to my own devices. Because I’m utterly lost and helpless without him.

I’m not kidding. I have enough emotional scars to prove it. Scars on top of scars. And so do people who get closest to me. Thank God many of them still love me!

1. N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 204.

2. John Zahl, “October 27” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 362.

Sermon 09-04-16: “Keeping the Promise, Part 3: Our Gifts”

September 14, 2016

keeping-the-promise-sermon-series

When it comes to financial giving in church, the Bible doesn’t say what we pastors want it to say: We want it to say, “Thou shalt give a tithe, or ten percent of your income, to support this church.” But notice in today’s scripture, the first church’s generosity is completely free and joyful. Why is our giving often so different? This sermon explores this question.

Sermon Text: Acts 4:32-5:11

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

I don’t think you would consider me someone who is irrationally afraid of heights. But I certainly have what I believe is a healthy fear of them. So you can imagine how I felt last month when I read about a man named Luke Aikens. He became the first person to skydive without a parachute or wing suit and live to tell the tale. It was broadcast live on the Fox network. He jumped from 25,000 feet and landed in a 100-x-100-foot net—about a third of the size of a football field. It was suspended 200 feet off the ground.

luke-aikins-skydiver

Aikens jumped 25,000 feet without a parachute—and lived to tell the tale!

Whether we’re afraid of heights or not, I think we can all agree that that seems crazy. But not so fast… The 42-year-old Aikens has been skydiving since he was 16. He’s made about 18,000 jumps in his life. He’s practiced this particular jump for a couple of years—using special parachutes that he opened at very low altitudes—landing on targets much smaller than the net he landed on last month. And a crew down below rigged some high powered lights on the ground that would indicate whether he was on-target or off-target—so he could make adjustments in the air. Read the rest of this entry »

Tom Wright on the priority of prayer (especially for pastors)

September 8, 2016

NT_WrightI’m preaching on Acts 6:1-7 this Sunday. I selected the scripture originally because I thought it something important to say about Christian service. And of course it does. But I’m more convicted at the moment about what it says about prayer. This bit of commentary from N.T. Wright got to me:

The fact that they mention prayer in the same breath [as teaching and preaching the word of God] in verse 4 is highly significant. Of course, all Christians are called to pray, to make time for it, to soak everything that they do in it. But the apostles cite it as a reason why they can’t get involved in the organization of daily distribution to those in need. That implies, not that those who do the distribution can do without prayer, but that the apostles must give themselves to far, far more prayer. Here, along with the challenge to a ministry of teaching and preaching, is a quiet but explosive hint to all leaders in today’s and tomorrow’s church.[†]

N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2008), 100-1.