Posts Tagged ‘predestination’

A few “tough texts” sermons starting this Sunday

August 18, 2011

Don't forget Vinebranch is at two times now: 8:30 and 11:00. Come early, come often.

After agonizing over how to finish off our 12-week sermon series on Romans (understanding, of course, that we could take a year and not finish Paul’s letter), I’m relieved to have a new plan. My original plan—to cover a little of chapter 9, chapter 10, and chapter 12 (using the suggested Revised Common Lectionary readings)—doesn’t work for me anymore. By which I mean it wouldn’t work for the congregation.

Romans 9-11, which is virtually ignored in mainline Protestant churches, raises too many challenging questions to breeze by it. So, this Sunday, I’m covering Romans 9:1-5, and talking about the difficult question that Paul raises: What about ethnic Jews who aren’t Christians? I know what we all want to say about our Jewish friends: Our differences don’t really matter. The Jews have one perfectly good covenant with God, and we Christians have another.

And I would want to say that, too, if I believed it were in the vicinity of what Paul has been arguing for eight chapters of Romans, or what he focuses on in particular in chapters 9-11. But it’s not. And since, as a good Methodist, I am prima scriptura, I want to be faithful to the Bible more than anything.

So this Sunday, I’m talking about the problem of unbelieving Israel in the context of Romans 9, but I’m going to challenge the congregation to think more broadly about the problem: Do we really believe that what God accomplished in Jesus Christ through his life, death, and resurrection is for the whole world—indeed, for all creation—or is it only for the billion or so people in the world who call themselves Christians?

In Romans 9:1-5, Paul expresses great anguish for “his people,” ethnic Jews who don’t know the saving love of God in Christ. Do we, among our circle of friends and family, have that same passionate concern for our people, whoever they may be? If so, how is it reflected in our actions?

So that’s “Tough Text #1,” and it’s this Sunday.

Next Sunday, August 28, I’ll be dealing with another troublesome question raised by Paul in both Romans 8 and 9, that prickly word (and concept of) “predestination.” This sermon will be more topical, but I will focus on those passages from Romans that are used as proof-texts for important tenants of Calvinism.

The strongest, most conservative version of Calvinism, sometimes called the “neo-reformed” movement, which is enjoying a surge in popularity among followers of John Piper and Mark Driscoll, elevates God’s sovereignty so high that human free will—not to mention, in my opinion, love alongside it—becomes meaningless. Calvinism also emphasizes double-predestination, which means that God chooses who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. If this sounds harsh to us non-Calvinists, it’s only because we fail to grasp that since everyone deserves hell, the fact that God spares some from it is to his glory. (Such is my revulsion that I struggle to even type those words!)

Don’t worry. I’m not going to get in the nitpicky details of Calvinism, but I do want to rescue these Romans passages from the hyper-Calvinists. What is Paul really saying in context and what does it mean for us today? Avoiding the issue seems irresponsible. If we Methodists—whose founder, after all, was an outspoken opponent of Calvinism—fail to talk about it, our people will only hear popular preachers and teachers in the media talk about it, and what they say often contradicts what we believe.

Finally, on September 4 and 11, I’m going to preach about a religious issue that’s been in the news recently: heaven, hell, who goes there, and why. I’ve read Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins, and some of the book’s critics. I’ll bring that into the discussion.

But do I also have to read that best-seller about the little boy who goes to heaven and comes back to talk about it? Maybe… Ugh!

About that controversial word “predestination”

August 16, 2011

In my sermon on Sunday, I didn’t say anything about predestination, a word that shows up in Romans 8:29-30. These verses are a Calvinist proof-text. I’m not a Calvinist, as everyone knows (John Wesley was no fan of Calvinism). And I’m not going to resolve the issue of the meaning of the word in this post. (Next week’s sermon over Romans 9 might afford me an opportunity to say something about it from the pulpit.)

Here are a few quick thoughts: Whatever Paul means by this word, he means as a word of assurance. He certainly isn’t telling the Roman Christians that some of them are saved and some of them are damned, and there isn’t anything they can do about it! Since he’s been laying out the means by which all humanity now becomes part of God’s covenant people, he likely intends to reassure Gentile Christians, especially, that their adoption into God’s family was a part of God’s plan all along.

After all, as we know from Paul’s argument so far, God didn’t send the Torah to his covenant people only to  find—to God’s surprise—that Israel failed to live up to it. The sending of God’s Son didn’t represent a change of plan. Rather, God intended to use the Torah to highlight sin and, through the cross, gather it up in one place in order that Israel’s Messiah (and humanity’s representative) could destroy its power once and for all.

And because of what God accomplished through the cross (whose victory was made manifest in the resurrection), everyone on earth now has the opportunity to share in God’s victory and become a part of God’s family.

Wow! That’s a hasty and inadequate summary of Romans so far, but you get the point. Whatever Paul is talking about, it shouldn’t be read through the lens of 16th-century Protestant theology, no matter how much Paul’s words here made their contribution to it; it should be read in the context of Paul’s argument about the Messiah and God’s covenant with Israel.

I vote that we make Bishop Wright an honorary Methodist. We're children of the Anglican tradition, you know?

Regardless, the most troubling aspect of predestination to most Methodists is the idea that God forces God’s will on some people—as if being “elected” by God were all God’s choice and humanity has no say in the matter. How does this leave room for personal responsibility? I like (surprise, surprise) N.T. Wright’s words on the subject:

Is Paul after all a determinist, believing in a blind plan that determines everything, so that human freedom, responsibility, obedience, and love itself are after all a sham? ¶ One can easily imagine Paul’s own reaction… “Certainly not!”… What we have here, rather, is an expression, as in 1:1, of God’s action in setting people apart for a particular purpose, a purpose in which their cooperation, their loving response to love, their obedient response to the personal call, is itself all-important.1

This is not to deny, Wright says, the “mystery of grace, the free initiative of God, and the clear divine sovereignty that is after all the major theme of this entire passage.” But it does deny the “two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional understanding of how God’s actions and human actions relate to each other, that sees something done by God as something not done by humans, and vice versa” [emphasis mine].

Does this sound familiar? The deterministic view of conservative Calvinism represents the same two-dimensional thinking that characterizes contemporary discussions of evolution and the origin of the cosmos. As I’ve written about on plenty of occasions, people on both sides of the science-faith divide seem to agree with one another that either evolutionary processes explain how we got here or God explains how we got here, but not both. This is a false dichotomy: it’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

Just as God’s action in Creation doesn’t compete with the physical laws of  the universe, so God’s will doesn’t compete with human will. As Wright says,

God’s actions and human actions are not, as it were, on the same plane… Woe betide theology if discussion of grace take their coloring from the mechanistic or technological age where all actions are conceived as though performed by a set of machines. God’s foreknowledge and foreordination, setting people apart in advance for particular purposes, are not equal and opposite to human desires, longings, self-questionings, obedience, and above all love. You do not take away from one by adding to the other.2

Thank you again, Tom.

1. N.T. Wright in “Romans,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 603.

2. Ibid.