Posts Tagged ‘Protestantism’

I’m supposed to care about the new pope because…?

March 16, 2013

I guess I’m supposed to care—given the eruption of Facebook posts from fellow Methodist clergy this week—but I’m in Roger Olson’s camp, and I’m glad he said it: I’m mostly indifferent. What does the bishop of Rome have to do with me and my ministry?

(Actually, Benedict XVI had more influence over me than his long-serving predecessor because I read and thoroughly enjoyed his book on the infancy narratives of Jesus.)

As Olson said, many Protestants look to the pope as “some kind of universal Christian cheerleader and spokesman.” Why? I recognize him as a brother in Christ, but he has no authority over me. If I wanted a Christian leader to have that kind of authority over me, guess what? I’d become Roman Catholic! In the meantime, ask me what I think about papal infallibility—not to mention some of the other doctrines of the church that these supposedly infallible popes dogmatized!

I know it’s politically incorrect for clergy to say something negative about fellow Christians (unless they’re Southern Baptist or run Chick-Fil-A), but have you read John Wesley or the Articles of Religion that he adapted from the Church of England? We’re supposed to disagree with Catholics! I miss the days when we Protestants could actually protest a little bit and not view the Protestant Reformation as an irredeemably tragic event. We don’t have to act like we’re one big happy family. I’m not Roman Catholic because I believe that the Roman Catholic Church gets it wrong in many important ways, especially in regards to the authority of scripture.

By all means, let’s get together as Protestants and Catholics and talk about our differences and work to resolve them, where possible. But for heaven’s sake, theology matters! Let’s not act like it doesn’t.

Of course, maybe I’m wrong about all that, but no one should be surprised that I believe these things, right?

Olson wonders why there has been so much media attention given to the election of the pope over the past two cycles, but that’s easy: there’s a lot more media to give it attention. Cable news has to fill its airwaves with something.

I like this point from Olson:

What I would like to know is why the mass media make so much of the election of a new pope? They say he leads 1.2 billion Catholics. Well, I seriously doubt both “lead” and the number. How do they count Catholics? If it’s anything like the way the Southern Baptist Convention counts Southern Baptists, well, I’m doubtful of the number. (The SBC counts me as a Southern Baptist! I’ve never been one.)

I suspect that millions of Latin Americans are counted as Catholics just because they were baptized into the church even though they attend Pentecostal churches. The same is true, I believe, in places like the Philippines and many other traditionally Catholic  countries.

I offer my congratulations to my Catholic friends, but please don’t expect me to celebrate. I’m emotionally and spiritually indifferent about it—as I should be. I worry about Protestants who invest tremendous emotional and spiritual interest in the papacy.

God’s grace from beginning to end

July 16, 2012

Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.

In my sermon on Noah a couple of Sundays ago, I concluded the sermon, as I usually do, with a word about God’s grace. I wanted to make the point—already made beautifully well by John Goldingay in his Genesis for Everyone commentary—that God’s choice of Noah to carry forward the human project after the flood was a powerful example of God’s grace. Noah “found favor” (i.e., received God’s grace) and this finding of favor is always undeserved. The nature of grace didn’t change between the Old and New Testaments.

In the sermon, I said the following:

God’s love and grace aren’t conditional, based on your good behavior. God’s love and grace just are… a free gift, offered without condition or price.

I thought this was uncontroversial, at least in the Protestant waters in which I swim. I borrowed the phrase, “offered without condition or price,” from United Methodist baptism liturgy, which (without bothering to look it up) is probably also in the liturgies of other Christian traditions.

My friend Tom, a Southern Baptist, very helpfully challenged my assertion about God’s grace and love. I mean this sincerely: I simply take for granted my understanding of God’s grace and love. Tom forced me to think through its implications when he wrote the following:

With respect to “grace is free, not earned,” what I would say is that grace is God’s willingness to accept less than perfection to receive a relationship with him (since Jesus “paid the difference”). I am not sure I can go so far as to say, “grace is free.” We have no claim to have God’s love or relationship extended to us, but that does not mean God requires nothing from us to receive that. In the first instance, we have to have faith to be saved. And James says that faith without works is dead. Also, we have to repent. Neither of these “merits” God’s favor, but they are still indispensable to receiving it. We cannot be saved by “works” because that would require perfection. But we cannot be saved without faith and repentance either, and those are not “nothing.” God’s grace is “freely given,” without compulsion to do so, but it, like (or as a manifestation of) love, is still conditional.

If I’m reading Tom right, he’s saying, among other things, that faith and repentance are prerequisites for receiving God’s justifying grace. They are two necessary conditions by which we are saved. As he says, faith and repentance are “not nothing” (I love that phrase!). Therefore, we can’t assert God’s unconditional love or grace.

Hmm Read the rest of this entry »

What must we do to be saved?

April 4, 2012

My daughter drew this on my iPad.


This is a question that comes up surprisingly often, in one form or another, in various Bible studies and Sunday school classes I teach. Usually, the questioner asks me, not because they’re worried about themselves, but because they want to know that a loved one—perhaps someone who, like the Prodigal Son, has wandered far away from the path of faithfulness—will be saved.

Of course, sometimes even faithful Christians, struck anew—as all faithful Christians will be from time to time—by a sense of their own sinfulness and the magnanimity of God’s grace, will seek reassurance. Am I really saved, and how can I know for sure? (I heard someone on a Christian talk-radio show ask this very question yesterday. The fact that he was conscientious enough to ask was a good sign!)

The answer, depending on whom you ask, can be more or less complicated. The first and best part of the answer, however, is that we don’t really have to do anything. Jesus did it all for us. As we approach Good Friday, it’s helpful to reflect on the objective fact of the cross. Through Jesus’ faithful obedience, not our own, we are reconciled to God.

One of the Protestant formulations that we loudly affirm—alongside sola scriptura—is another sola: sola fide. By this we mean that we are justified (made right with God) by faith alone. We can bring no righteousness of our own to the equation that will make us acceptable to God.

And this should quiet our troubled souls, except it often doesn’t. We worry about the content of our faith: do we believe the right things. Our fundamentalist Christian brothers and sisters are notorious for offering us a list of things that we must believe—as if it were possible to simply will ourselves to believe things that we don’t believe. In which case, faith itself becomes a meritorious work that we must perform in order to be saved. And didn’t the Reformation stand against that way of thinking?

No, let’s be good Protestants and go back to the Bible. If scripture is our guide, it would seem to require very little on our part to be saved. Adam Hamilton gets at this when he talks about the “thief” on the cross (who was himself likely a violent revolutionary). Hamilton writes:

He turned to Jesus and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42); and Jesus raised himself up yet again and said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). I love this. Jesus, hanging on the cross, was still seeking to save those who were lost. This man did not understand theology. He did not know Scripture. He had not recited a creed. He had not joined a church or been baptized. He had not had the chance to do anything righteous or to clean up his life. He was hanging on the cross for his crimes when, at some very simple level, he caught the vision of Jesus’ kingdom and asked if he might become part of it; and that was enough… For us, as for the thief on the cross, this is a sufficient starting point.[1]

A “sufficient starting point.” I like that. Because, while I said earlier that it seems to require very little to be saved, it actually requires everything—if we understand the gift that we’ve been given. But it takes a lifetime to learn how to give everything, and the vast majority of us will never do so perfectly (although my man Wesley held out hope!).

But the thief’s words are a sufficient starting point. And for my brothers and sisters whose consciences cause them to doubt their salvation, I would add that it’s a sufficient “starting over” point.

Maybe some of us need to start over as we look to the cross this Friday? If so, hear Jesus’ reassuring words: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

[1] Adam Hamilton, 24 Hours That Changed the World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 107.

About that weird stuff in “John’s Pentecost” from John 20

May 14, 2011

No spoiler alert necessary. None of the following will appear in my Vinebranch sermon tomorrow. It’s too technical, too lengthy, and maybe a little boring for a sermon (as opposed to a Bible study). Needless to say, I find it all terribly interesting. Maybe you will too. It’s about the same passage of scripture I’ll be preaching on: John 20:19-29.

The scripture includes an intriguing image in John 20:22: “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” What does it mean to be “breathed on” by Jesus?

This scripture continues the New Creation imagery that I’ve discussed elsewhere (here and here). These words intentionally recall those words found back in Genesis Chapter 2, describing how God “breathed into the nostrils” of that first human being the “breath of life” (Gen 2:7). This breath that Jesus breathed into the disciples was the breath of new life. This was nothing less than the beginning of God’s new world, God’s new creation, and these disciples are being re-created. Jesus is sending his friends into the world to announce the good news of this new creation, which is beginning right now, in the here and now, and will be completed on the other side of our future resurrection.

This passage is sometimes called “John’s Pentecost,” because in John’s gospel, Jesus gives this group of disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit before his ascension—just as he does in Acts 2 after his ascension, while Jews are gathered in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost.

The passage also includes the controversial verse 23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What on earth does that mean? This has been a source of division in the Western church between Catholics and Protestants. Over the centuries, Catholics began interpreting this verse to mean that Jesus gave his apostles (and by extension their successors, ordained elders) a special role in forgiving sins—thus the Catholic sacrament of penance. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Protestantism still a good idea? (Part 3)

March 23, 2011

Following up on a couple of posts, here and here, I point you to Kevin Hargaden’s post about the “cool kids” switching churches. In the comments section of that post, yours truly said something that will be my final word on the subject, before I return to my happy ecumenical self. I wanted to say this in my earlier posts…

If someone were thinking about abandoning one church tradition for another, how can they be certain of their motives? Have they exhausted the wellspring of their own tradition, such that it no longer offers them any spiritual nourishment? Or are they bored? Here’s my comment.

Well said! I’ve known a few people who’ve crossed the Tiber, and that EWTN show makes me want to puke. The best reason to stay in the tradition in which we find ourselves is the hubris required to leave: “I’m better and smarter and holier than those dumb Methodists [or fill in the blank] who don’t understand how impoverished their tradition is.” Give me a break! Besides, the novelty wears off, right? At some point, in order to grow as a disciple of Jesus, one must still do the hard work of discipleship. Everyone is looking for a shortcut for that, but there is no shortcut.