Posts Tagged ‘N.T. Wright’

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

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

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.

Sermon 07-16-17: “The Gospel, Noah’s Ark, and Christ’s Victorious Reign”

August 8, 2017

Today’s sermon deals mostly with what many scholars consider the most difficult verse in the New Testament, 1 Peter 3:19, which says that sometime after his death, Christ “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” This verse has been used as a proof-text for a part of the Apostles’ Creed that we United Methodists no longer say: “[Christ] descended into hell.” But is that what it means? This sermon will help us figure it out.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 3:18-22

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

I personally have never shopped at IKEA, nor have I ever put any of their furniture together. My wife, Lisa, has, and she’s a champ at it. But I know from its reputation, that their instructions can be notoriously difficult: They’ve inspired memes and satirical articles. One Buzzfeed article was entitled, “Why Building Ikea Furniture Is Probably Satan’s Favorite Hobby.” Two years ago, when IKEA announced that they were assisting Syrian refugees by donating ready-to-assemble shelters, one Onion writer said, “Haven’t these people been through enough without the added struggle of assembling IKEA products?”

But we all know the frustration of trying to assemble something at home—I’m thinking of baby cribs, for instance—only to find that when we get through assembling it, there are these mysterious parts left over. And we don’t know where or how they fit in, and the prospect of taking it apart and reassembling it makes us want to use words that we wouldn’t want our pastor to hear—and you wouldn’t want your pastor to say. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »