Posts Tagged ‘Pope Francis’

Pope Francis and the false gospel of “just be a good person”

April 21, 2018

In the sermon I posted just this week, on Galatians 1:1-10, I warned against the false gospel of “just be a good person.” While this isn’t the same false gospel that Paul is attacking in his letter to the Galatians, it is a gospel that says, in so many words, that what we do plays a role—and a rather large one—in saving us. I cited Warren Buffett, who, upon announcing that he was giving away 80 percent of his $44 billion fortune, said, “There’s more than one way to go to heaven, but this is a great way.”

Of course, Buffett’s way is no way at all. If our salvation depends on what we do—aside from confessing our helplessness to do anything—we will be damned. The apostle Paul believes this so strongly, in fact, that he said that false teachers who merely added a few human requirements to his gospel of free grace through Christ would be damned. This is literally the meaning of his words in verse 9: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” “Accursed” is literally the Greek word anathema, which means to be damned.

Paul’s words are uncompromising because he believes that if his readers embrace this false gospel, they are putting their souls at risk.

I realize how unpopular this message is to most modern-day Americans. But Paul is not playing around here. And we shouldn’t be, either. If Paul is right, nothing less than heaven or hell hangs in the balance: we will be saved by Christ’s atoning work on the cross alone or we will not saved at all. To misunderstand this is to risk losing the gospel entirely.

As if on cue, however, in a video that has since gone viral, Pope Francis challenged this gospel of free grace. Last Sunday, during a gathering of Catholics, he invited children in the audience to come forward and ask him questions. One child, named Emanuele, asked Francis, through tears, if his recently deceased father was in heaven, even though he was an atheist.

The pontiff implied rather strongly that he was. And how did Francis know? Because, he said, the child’s father was a good man, as evidenced by his son’s testimony and his willingness to have his four children baptized. Francis told the crowd:

That man didn’t have the gift of faith, he wasn’t a believer, but he had his children baptized. He had a good heart. And [Emanuele] is doubting whether or not his dad, not having been a believer, is in heaven. God is the one who decides who goes to heaven. But how does God’s heart react to a Dad like that? How? What do you think? … A dad’s heart! God has the heart of a father.

And faced with a dad, a nonbeliever, who was able to have his children baptized and to give them that courage, do you think that God would be capable of leaving him far from Him?

He even told the boy to “talk to your dad,” which—even in terms of a Catholic doctrine I don’t accept—would be impossible if the man were in hell.

Let me preface the following words by saying that my heart breaks for this boy. I sympathize with Pope Francis, and any other pastor, who must answer difficult questions about the afterlife for loved ones who were unbelievers.

Pope Francis is absolutely right that “God is the One who decides” who goes to heaven. We cannot know for certain who is and isn’t there. We are not the judge—fortunately. But God is, and only God can know a person’s heart infallibly. Even this father, for instance, who (for all we know) professed atheism for most of his life, may have yet have turned to Christ, like the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), and found saving grace even in the last few moments of his life.

And Francis is right about God having a father’s heart. Like the loving father in the parable (Luke 15:11-24), our heavenly Father stood ready to receive this man, without reservation, as his beloved child. “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15 and many other places). God loved this man beyond measure (John 3:16) and wanted him to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). And if this man repented and turned to Christ, even in his dying moments, he would have been saved: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13).

So… was this man saved? I hope! Even if it’s unlikely, given the man’s professed atheism, I hope. That’s all any of us can do. It’s all that’s warranted, biblically speaking.

If Francis had told the child something like that—and given the child’s age and level of maturity, I understand that it would have been difficult—I would have no problem.

What he said instead, however, was nothing less than a distortion of the gospel. He said, in so many words, that the man might be saved—or likely would be saved—on the basis not of faith in Christ but of his good works. To say the least this is cheap grace. And as I’ve said on this blog and in sermons, if grace is cheap, it’s already too expensive.

The gospel isn’t good news because it’s easier than following the Law; the gospel is good news because following the Law—even the watered-down version of the law that says, “Thou shalt be a good person”—is impossible. Even accounting for important differences between Catholic and Protestant understandings of justification by grace through faith (alone or otherwise), Pope Francis should know this, right?

Meanwhile, the popularity of Francis’s words to this boy makes the proclamation of the one true gospel all the more difficult. Who am I, after all, to contradict a pope? 🤦🏼‍♂️

Sermon 05-07-17: “Against ‘Easy-Believism'”

May 16, 2017

“Easy-believism,” the idea that being a Christian is easy and requires very little of us, is a crisis in the local church, in the United Methodist denomination, and in the culture at large. Yet today’s scripture speaks against easy-believism in a few important ways. I talk about two of those ways in this sermon.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 1:13-21

Many of you have used Uber. I never have. I know it’s very popular. In case you don’t know, it’s like a taxi service, except the drivers aren’t taxi drivers; they’re just regular people in their regular cars. You have an app on your phone when you need a ride somewhere.

Uber recently released its “Lost and Found Index,” a humorous report on the forgetfulness of its passengers—i.e., the items that passengers forgot about and left behind in Uber vehicles. For example, the most frequently forgotten item, unsurprisingly, is the cell phone. The second most frequently forgotten item is a ring. That’s surprising… although as someone who tends to take off my wedding band and fiddle around with it—including spinning it like a top on tables—I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising. It spins really well! Keys, wallets, and glasses round out the Top 5.[1]

A surprising number of wedding dresses are forgotten in Uber vehicles.

As an absent-minded person who tends to forget things, I can relate. But all of us know that panicky feeling we get when we lose or forget or leave behind something valuable. “This is so important!” we say. “How could I have forgotten that?”

Brothers and sisters, if, when we read today’s scripture, we get that same panicky feeling—and we say, “This is so important! How could we as a church have forgotten that?”—well, we’re probably reading this passage correctly. Because today’s scripture reminds us of some very important truths that we tend to forget in our Christian lives. Read the rest of this entry »

Either God sanctifies us—or it doesn’t happen at all!

January 26, 2017

A clergy friend posted the following on Facebook last week:


I hated to be an ecumenical wet blanket, but I thought the last part of Pope Francis’s quote was overly optimistic. If there’s something about our “alliance” with Christ that “makes” us live without sin—indeed, to be “far away from” it—I haven’t discovered it. So I quoted Luther’s maxim concerning our nature as Christians: In Christ, we are “simultaneously righteous and sinners.”

My friend, a Methodist pastor, demurred:

Is your assumption that the pope is referring to some before justification or after? I take his meaning to be at the moment of or after. At the point of justification one would then be simultaneously progressing in a state of sanctifying grace. That would be most Wesleyan. Otherwise it’s purely Lutheran and therefore holiness or justification has little if nothing to do with your progress in holiness since it doesn’t require your participation, i.e., it’s all imputed.

To which I replied:

But suppose you die moments after being justified and born again. On what basis are you fit for heaven other than Christ’s righteousness—imputed or not? Certainly not your own “holiness,” such as it is. I don’t think the imputed righteousness of Christ negates personal responsibility. But I also don’t think that sanctification is ever more than our saying “yes” to God’s grace, just as we do when we are justified. Grace is still grace. Our participation, whatever it is, isn’t something of which we get to be proud. Sanctification isn’t “we do a little, then God does a little,” although I agree that’s how it’s popularly understood.

The truth is, I have become slightly more Lutheran and more Reformed in my theological perspective. (Of course, I had already been indoctrinated in Augustine by Candler’s only conservative professor [at the time], Lewis Ayres, so I wasn’t far from this perspective—at least as soon as I started believing the Bible again). If that makes me less comfortably Wesleyan, so be it. But Wesley wasn’t too far from this. Didn’t he compare sanctification to respiration: God breathes in, we breathe out? What we do is very small compared to what Christ did and the Holy Spirit does.

So twice my friend referred to our “progress” in holiness and implies that it’s something that we do, or something for which we’re (mostly? 50-50?) responsible. From my own experience, talk of “progress” in the Christian life makes me nervous. We are not sanctified by what we do! God is going to have to do the sanctifying in our relationship with him, or it won’t happen at all! 

While I don’t think my friend accurately represents John Wesley’s thinking on the subject, who cares what Wesley says? We have to contend, as always, with the Bible. Like Wesley, “I am a man of one book”—or I strive to be. We are saved by grace from first to last. Our cooperation in this salvific process, while not nothing, is minimal—certainly in comparison to what God does. It’s never something about which we get to boast and say, “Look what I’ve done!”

All that to say, I embrace the Reformation affirmation of imputed righteousness. As a result, these words by Matt Johnson from the Mockingbird Devotional are sweet music to my ears:

In reflecting on the temptations we’ve faced and the the sufferings we’ve undergone, no doubt we’ve been faithless amidst life’s domestic complexities. Juggling home, career and family; coming to terms with illness, debt, death—it hasn’t gone too well. We’ve not laid our burdens down like we should have. And with this failure comes shame…

We often have similar experiences where we feel this close. We had great plans, and we almost got there, but now the hope of deliverance seems too good to be true—and now it’s back to the old life.

In those moments of regress or failure, nothing quite pegs our identity like shame does. It becomes the way we self-describe. The “Who am I?” framework only shows us what we aren’t: an ineffective employee. A failed father. A basket case. A pervert. Your shame has the power to terminally name you. Sure, Jesus-loves-me-this-I-know and all that—but what about here and now? What about this sea of shame?[1]

Let me interject here to say that my clergy friend’s notion of “progress” as something we accomplish, even in part, does nothing but contribute to this “sea of shame”—at least in my experience. (His mileage may vary.) I need to be reminded again and again of God’s grace.

Johnson continues:

In Christ, you are God’s treasured possession. As part of His family, you are the beloved first-born son. Rather than receiving the wrath of Pharaoh, the chaos of the sea is the moment of His salvation. Naturally you’ve forgotten that and have placed an old shame back onto your shoulders again, but it was never yours to lug around in the first place. As Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” In Christ, you are clothed in righteousness and when God sees you, there is nothing more to be ashamed of. He sees the perfection of Jesus.[2]

1. Matt Johnson, “January 24” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 53.

2. Ibid.

Why I’m not Catholic, Part 28

January 5, 2017

I hate to be an ecumenical wet blanket. I promise I’m not anti-Catholic. Even last month, I quoted extensively from the former Pope Benedict XVI’s excellent little book on Christmas, which I’d recommend to anyone. And I celebrate the many points of agreement between orthodox Protestants and Catholics.

Nevertheless, in this, the five-hundredth anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation, I will shed no tears: There were good reasons the Reformation happened, and apart from drastic reform within the Roman church, good reasons that we Protestants still refuse to swim the Tiber. One of them is this New Year’s tweet from Pope Francis:

Catholic apologists tell me that praying to the saints is nothing more than asking your friends—in this case, your friends in heaven—to pray for you. They are “prayer warriors”—if unusually effective ones. Indeed, even the Hail Mary prayer asks her to “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

Not that this isn’t hard enough to swallow. It asks us to imagine that Mary and the saints wait in heaven at our beck and call, outside of time, endowed with God-like powers of omnipresence and omniscience, ready to hear our prayer and intercede for us. At any one moment, after all, thousands or millions could be praying the Hail Mary. How is she not omnipresent? Otherwise, supplicants are competing with one another to be heard—and, let’s face it, she would likely only hear a tiny fraction of the prayers offered. (Is this the reason people repeat the prayer so many times?)

And she must be able to read our thoughts: I assume a prayer that isn’t verbalized “counts,” for example, if the supplicant is unable to speak. How is that possible apart from omniscience?

I hate to speculate, but what else can I do? I would turn to the New Testament for guidance from Paul and the other apostles, but there’s nothing there. Praying to the saints is an entirely extrabiblical practice.

Regardless, apologists tell us that Catholics are only asking Mary and the saints to intercede on their behalf, nothing more. They don’t believe that the saints have any inherent power to answer any prayer other than the prayer for them to pray for us.

But if that’s true, how do you explain the Pope’s recent tweet? How is it not idolatrous to entrust the future to any creature, rather than to Christ himself? What powers does Mary herself possess to enable peace and mercy to grow?

I like this tweet from Lutheran Satire:

P.S. “Mother of God,” from the Greek theotokos (literally “God-bearer”), was originally a Christological formulation, meant to communicate the full divinity of Christ: When Mary bore Christ, she bore God himself, because Christ was fully God. While I wouldn’t use the term myself, given how it’s prone to misunderstanding, there is nothing unorthodox about referring to Mary that way. Again, it says something about Christ, not Mary.

Why I’m not Catholic, Part 29

December 19, 2015

Mother Teresa is going to be canonized by the Catholic Church. No surprise there—her soul-crashing doubts about God’s existence notwithstanding. Once the ball starts rolling toward sainthood, does it ever stop? Those two required miracles will be found, if the Vatican wants to find them badly enough… even if they have to find post-mortem miracles!

I know, I know… Who am I to judge? I’m Protestant. But I am ecumenically inclined. I’m not especially sectarian. Unfortunately, when I read the following in the New York Times about the two certifiable miracles of Mother Teresa, it only strengthens my Protestant resolve:

Two miracles are generally required for canonization. Mother Teresa was beatified in 2003 after the Vatican concluded that an Indian woman’s prayers to the nun caused her incurable tumor to disappear. The second miracle involves a Brazilian man who suffered a viral brain infection that caused multiple abscesses, and eventually left him in a coma and dying. His wife had been praying for months to Mother Teresa, and on Dec. 9, 2008, as he was about to be taken to emergency surgery, she and her husband’s priest and relatives intensified their prayers.

Praying to the saints offends me. It’s contrary to the biblical witness. By all means, intercessory prayer is commanded by Christ and the apostles in scripture, but as N.T. Wright once observed, “Why talk to someone standing outside the throne room when you can go directly to the One sitting on the throne?” I’ve never read or heard a satisfactory answer to that question—only appeals to a tradition that is, at best, centuries after the apostolic witness.

Moreover, even granting the biblically unfounded idea that saints in heaven can hear our prayers to them, how are they now endowed with god-like powers—transcending time, space, and human limitations—such that, like God himself, they can simultaneously hear the prayers of potentially billions all at once? One theological answer, perhaps, is that God grants them these powers by his grace—through the Holy Spirit—but doesn’t that beg the question?

If it’s only through God’s grace that these departed saints’ prayers on our behalf are efficacious, then who’s really doing the “miraculous” work here? In which case, since through Christ’s atoning work we Christians are now God’s beloved sons and daughters who are privileged to call God Father on the same basis as his Son Jesus, why not just pray directly to the Father?

Even worse, in the case of someone like Mother Teresa, she’s credited for two miracles that she performed after she died! Literally. If I were Catholic and believed in praying to saints, on what basis would I pray to Mother Teresa, who, at the time, wasn’t even recognized as a saint? Were they guessing that she might be one, so they were praying to her just in case?

It’s hard enough for me to pray to God without doubting that he’ll grant my petitions; what extra measure of faith would be required for me to believe that praying to someone who’s less than God will have any effect—especially doing so without biblical warrant!

If it’s true that Pope Francis is ready to declare, during 2017’s 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, that the Reformation is over, and Protestants of good faith are fully equal brothers and sisters, he must also declare that this issue is at least adiaphora—one over which we Christians can rightly disagree.

See Anglican theologian Glenn Peoples’ blog post from July for more information on the tradition of praying to saints.


Will Pope Francis recognize essential unity between Catholics and evangelicals?

August 4, 2015

Newly elected Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina waves as he leaves after praying at basilica in RomeIs this true? If so, that will make the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation more interesting. The fact that it appears in a Catholic publication lends credence to it.

If the Catholic Church will recognize our essential unity in the Spirit in spite of important differences over biblical and ecclesial authority, the Marian dogmas, and the meaning of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, then I’m all for it.

Somewhere in Pope Francis’s office is a document that could alter the course of Christian history. It declares an end to hostilities between Catholics and Evangelicals and says the two traditions are now “united in mission because we are declaring the same Gospel”. The Holy Father is thinking of signing the text in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, alongside Evangelical leaders representing roughly one in four Christians in the world today.

Sermon 12-22-13: “Reel Christmas, Part 4: Miracle on 34th Street”

December 30, 2013


Miracle on 34th Street is an insightful movie about faith. Which is odd to say because while the movie, like many contemporary Christmas movies, is deeply concerned about the “true meaning of Christmas,” it never hints at what the meaning is. Still, the parallels between finding faith in Santa Claus and finding faith in Jesus are hard for someone like me to resist.

Miracle speaks to our skeptical age. I hope this sermon does, too!

Sermon Text: Matthew 13:44-46

The following is my original sermon manuscript with videos inserted in the proper order.

Our movie begins on Thanksgiving, with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Before the parade starts, a man who calls himself Kris Kringle tries to give the Macy’s Santa tips on how to be a more convincing Santa Claus.

So… Anything happen in the news last week? Unless you were living under a rock, you heard that the A&E Network suspended Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Duck Dynasty clan, for the interview he gave to GQ. While I wouldn’t have said it the way Phil said it—and even the family admitted that his comments were “unfiltered” and “coarse”—I strongly agree with the point he was making regarding marriage and intimacy. They reflect the doctrine of our United Methodist Church. I’ve blogged about this issue, and I’d be happy to talk with you if you have concerns. But when I was ordained a few years ago, I stood up and told the bishop, the annual conference, and God that I agreed with the doctrines of our church, and I wasn’t kidding. Sadly, I can’t speak for so many of my fellow Methodist clergy! Read the rest of this entry »

The Second Coming and signs of the times

December 29, 2013

For the first time in nearly forever—I admit with shame—I’m going to preach, briefly, about the Second Coming. It ties into today’s message about Simeon and Anna in Luke 2:21-40: just as they were waiting for the first coming, we Christians are waiting for the Second Coming.

What a marginalized doctrine this is for most of us today! I realize in decades and centuries past, some parts of the Church have overemphasized it, but it’s hard to see that many of us—especially Methodist preachers like me—are in danger of doing that today.

The Bible warns that there will be signs of the end. In a November 28 sermon that attracted little media attention, Pope Francis himself talked about one potential sign that he sees coming true today (see this and that): the intensified persecution of Christians in the Middle East. In his sermon he said:

What does this mean? It will be like the triumph of the prince of this world: the defeat of God. It seems that in that final moment of calamity, he will take possession of this world, that he will be the master of this world… You must obey the orders which come from worldly powers. You can do many things, beautiful things, but not adore God. Worship is prohibited—this is at the center of the end of time… [Once we] reach the fullness of this pagan attitude…truly the Son of Man will come in a cloud with great power and glory.

If Pope Francis is talking about the Second Coming and signs of the end, good heavens, why aren’t I?

“What we all ought to be doing”

November 8, 2013
Pope Francis blesses and kisses a man with the "Elephant Man disease," neurofibromatosis.

Pope Francis blesses and kisses a man with the “Elephant Man disease,” neurofibromatosis.

Just this… from Archbishop Cranmer’s blog.

Visiting St Peter’s Square, most of us would shun this poor wretch because of his Elephant Man-like appearance. We would certainly decline to share a communion chalice with him, for fear of some unknown contagion. But, like his namesake St Francis of Assisi, this Pope abjures his royal palace, lives in a guest house with his brothers, and prays deeply – quite movingly – for a modern-day leper. Indeed, the Pope kissed the carbuncles upon this poor man’s deformed forehead.

Humility and holiness in action.

It is Christ-like.

Some will say it is prophetic – a sign of profound faith in a superficial world of beautiful people and bright young things. But it is simply what we all ought to be doing – manifesting the self-emptying love of Christ and transcending the narrow confines of the world.

Love does not solve life’s problems: it helps us to cope with them. It brings perspective and confers order. Faith working through love is creative and redemptive. Pope Francis acts for that poor distorted being because he has an appreciation of that being. Such love is the fruit of God’s presence within us.

Please note that His Grace refers to Francis’s “self-emptying love,” a reference to the very scripture I’ll be preaching on this Sunday.

Sermon 09-22-13: “Back to School, Part 7: The Model Prayer”

October 1, 2013
Do you worry that God has bigger things to worry about than a football game? Don't.

Do you worry that God has bigger things to worry about than a football game? Don’t.

One of the challenges many Christians face when it comes to prayer is believing that God cares enough to hear from us about our “small” problems. Yet, if the first words that Jesus gives us to pray are true—”Our Father”—then we have no reason to doubt. God is not less of a father than any human father. Quite the contrary!

This sermon encourages God’s children to pray, and to do so with boldness.

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:5-13

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Michael Bleecker leads worship at a megachurch in Texas. On Twitter, he recently asked his fellow worship leaders around the world to document some of the theological blunders they’ve accidentally made while leading worship or singing in church under the hashtag “#worshipheresy”. Of course, yours truly has never made mistakes when I preach or pray! Yeah, right! I once preached a sermon on Noah, and throughout the entire sermon I referred to him as “Jonah.” Or vice versa.

Many of the funny mistakes that worship leaders made were related to extemporaneous prayer, and here are a few of them: “Father, thank you for dying on the cross.” And “Father, we thank you for rising from the dead.” And “Jesus, we thank you that the tomb is not empty.” But some prayer mistakes might be more accurately characterized as Freudian slips, if you know what I mean. They reveal a bit more about us than we’d care to admit. Here are a few if them: “We’re just trying to repay You for what You’ve done.” Or “God, that you would decrease so that I may increase.” Or my favorite: “Lord, align Your will with ours.”

Lord, align your will with ours. Read the rest of this entry »