Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

Adam Hamilton, you’re not helping!

November 20, 2015


I complained in my previous post—just a  few hours ago—that we often risk missing the gospel of Jesus Christ in the four Gospels. I said that we turn scripture passages such as the Good Samaritan and the Sheep and the Goats (which I’m preaching on this Sunday) into messages of works righteousness. The message is “try harder or else!”—or why mince words? “Try harder or be damned for eternity!”

Was I exaggerating? Consider today’s blog post from Adam Hamilton, which is an appeal for us Christians in America to support the immigration of Syrian refugees. Much of what he says is reasonable. But then, like many fellow pastors this week, he badly mishandles the parable of the Sheep and the Goats from Matthew 25:31-46. He writes, “In the parable it appears that the goats thought of themselves as religious.” [Probably true.] “They were therefore surprised when, at the last judgment, they were turned away.” [Definitely true.] He continues (emphasis his):

So, why did the goats turn people away who were in need? I think it was because they were afraid and they allowed their fear to override their compassion and humanity. And the sheep? They found the courage to overcome their fears and to act with compassion and love.

I’m sure the “goats” failed for a host of reasons, which likely included fear, but that’s beside the point. Here’s my problem: Jesus’ words here are about nothing less than Final Judgment, salvation or damnation, heaven or hell. Does Hamilton really mean to say that the difference between those who are saved and those who are lost comes down to our ability to “find the courage to overcome our fears” or not?

Do you see the problem? It’s downright Pelagian! Without qualifying his words, Hamilton is implying that we’re saved or lost based on what we do! This isn’t the gospel of grace; it’s the gospel of good works! It’s the gospel of “try harder or be damned.”

I’m guessing Hamilton doesn’t mean to imply this. After all, like me, Hamilton is a Wesleyan-Arminian. He’s supposed to know as well as I do that while we cooperate with the Holy Spirit (theologically, we’re synergists, not monergists), even our cooperation is made possible by grace, such that none of our good works contributes anything to our salvation.

But if Hamilton isn’t talking about salvation, why does he use this particular parable, in which nothing less than salvation is at stake?

Where’s the gospel? Where’s grace?

As I said in my previous post, if we rely on the gospel of good works, we’re all in trouble. Maybe in the instance of Syrian refugees, Adam Hamilton and others are “overcoming their fear” through their advocacy. But aren’t there plenty of other times in his life when he fails to “overcome his fear”? Aren’t there at least thousands of times in his life when he “did it not to one of the least of these”? Will he be condemned to hell for these failures?

Of course not! Why? Because we’re saved not because of what we either do or fail to do, but because of what Christ has done for us!

Otherwise, we’re doomed. Hamilton knows this. I just wish he would say it!

When we pastors use this parable to say something about works of mercy, which is perfectly appropriate, we need to also say that these works are a sign of salvation, which comes to us as a free gift from God by grace through faith alone.

By all means, there’s a warning here: Saving faith will include good works. And if we’re not doing these things regularly, in spite of our many failures, then it may be a sign that we haven’t truly trusted in Christ. The apostle James makes this point repeatedly.

But this isn’t Hamilton’s point here. Like many others, he’s preaching the gospel of “try harder or else.” And that gospel can’t save us.

Finding the gospel in the Gospels

November 20, 2015

I’ve blogged recently about how much easier preaching the Old Testament is when you believe, often against the propaganda of mainline Protestant seminary, that the Old Testament, like all of scripture, is about Jesus. Granted, to believe that, one has to believe that the same Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of Christ, inspired both Testaments—and that the sending of God’s Son into the world wasn’t a surprise or a change of plans for God; rather, from an eternal perspective the Lamb was slain “from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).

The gospel of Jesus Christ permeates the Old Testament. And of course it’s often the main subject of the apostolic epistles of the New Testament. It’s become clear to me recently, however, that unless we’re careful, we can end up missing the gospel in the four Gospels themselves!

What do I mean?

I’m thinking, for instance, of the scripture that I preached last Sunday, the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-36, and (even more) this Sunday’s text, Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. As I said in my sermon on the Good Samaritan, we can easily turn the parable into a message of works righteousness rather than grace: “What? You call yourself a disciple of Jesus Christ and you don’t love your neighbor the way the Good Samaritan loved this wounded victim on the side of the road? Shame on you! You need to try harder!”

As I said on Sunday, I stink at trying harder! Don’t you? I mean, honestly… If the message of the parable is that we need to be like the Good Samaritan, aren’t we all in trouble? (Maybe I should speak for myself.) But when I hear a “try harder” message, I tend to feel more guilty and ashamed than convicted. Guilt and shame, alongside anger, are default emotions for me, unfortunately; I hardly need extra incentive to feel that way! 🙁

Over the past week, I’ve noticed that many of my fellow Christians and clergy colleagues have appealed to the Good Samaritan as scriptural warrant for welcoming Syrian refugees into the U.S. (and especially into those southern states, like my own, whose governors have said they won’t accept any). More than one pastor I read said that this issue strikes at the “core of the gospel.”

Politics aside, does it really? Does the question of whether or how to offer sanctuary to Syrian refugees strike at the core of the gospel? If so, what exactly is the gospel? Is it based on good works? Is it about what I do? Is it about “trying harder” after all?

I hope not. Otherwise I’m in trouble! Aren’t you?

What does Paul say? “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The law can only condemn me. I have no righteousness of my own; it’s only because of Christ’s righteousness, which I receive through faith, that I’m saved (Phil. 3:9). I hope that this strikes closer to the core of the gospel than anything else!

Besides, it’s not as if social media activism—or “slacktivism”—would bring any of us nearer to the “works righteousness” gospel anyway! I’m not any more like the Good Samaritan if I tweet an angry tweet or post an angry Facebook post than if I don’t. If the gospel is about works, then I’m lost and so are you. We don’t need to try harder. We need Jesus!

What, then, is the primary meaning of the Good Samaritan if not to “try harder”? Feel free to read or watch my sermon. But my favorite part of the sermon was sharing an insight that the Church Fathers shared in their preaching and teaching about this parable: The Good Samaritan is Jesus Christ. We need Jesus to be a neighbor to us. We are the helpless, dying victim in need of rescue. As I said last Sunday:

The most important meaning of this parable is that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, is our Good Samaritan. We human beings, the apostle Paul says, have made ourselves God’s enemies because of our sin and rebellion against God. Satan has stripped us, beaten us, and left us for dead on the side of the road. We have no one to save us—until Jesus the Good Samaritan comes to us and offers us salvation.

Now, Samaritans and Jews hated one another. They were enemies. An ordinary Samaritan wouldn’t have compassion on his enemy, a Jew—any more than we’d have compassion on those terrorists that attacked Paris on Friday. But Jesus the Good Samaritan had compassion on his enemies. An ordinary Samaritan wouldn’t risk his life on this dangerous road in order to save his enemy, but Jesus the Good Samaritan not only risked his life, he laid down his life to save his enemies. An ordinary Samaritan wouldn’t give his time, his strength, his money, in order to nurse his enemy back to health. But Jesus the Good Samaritan said, “I’ll take the sickness of your sin upon myself, and I’ll suffer your disease for you, even though I’ve done nothing to deserve it; I’ll gladly suffer it”—I’ll take all your bad stuff and give you all my good stuff; I’ll take your sin and unrighteousness and give you my righteousness—so that you will be eternally healed!

Breaking news: The pope is now a pacifist. Or not.

September 12, 2013

Newly elected Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina waves as he leaves after praying at basilica in RomeAn Italian woman named Anna Romano recently got pregnant out of wedlock. The father, who was married with child, pressured her to have an abortion, and she refused. She wrote to Pope Francis earlier this year describing her life and her brave decision not to have an abortion. Last week, the pope called her out of the blue and said that he would personally baptize her child after she gives birth.

It’s easy to admire this pope deeply as a man. He has a great heart.

So far, however, when he speaks theologically, it’s hard not to wonder where his head is.

I blogged about the confusing way he used the word “redemption” in a homily he delivered a while back. This week, in a similarly conciliatory but theologically muddled way, he implied that God will even forgive atheists so long as they abide by their consciences.

Or maybe he didn’t imply that. As my friend Kevin helpfully reminded me, he said in the same op-ed that forgiveness comes to those who repent with a sincere and contrite heart.

I don’t count on the press to get the theological nuances right. And I suspect Pope Francis doesn’t, either, which is why, so far in his papacy, he’s enjoyed great publicity: he gets to have his cake and eat it too. Regardless, if the incident regarding his redemption homily is any guide, I’m sure the Vatican is already drafting some clarifying statement to say that the pope didn’t mean quite what many people thought he meant.

The pope also made news last week by mentioning Syria in a homily, saying, “War always marks the failure of peace” (which is true by definition, a tautology). “It is always a defeat for humanity.” (True enough, in that it wouldn’t happen in the first place if humanity were in harmony with God and one another—if we weren’t sinners.)

But he overstates his case when he says, “Violence and war are never the way to peace!”

Really? Never? He’s contradicting his own church’s tradition of “just war” principles when he says this.

Like it or not, violence and war are the way to peace and justice sometimes. Not perfect peace and not perfect justice, both of which will never be accomplished on this side of resurrection. But peace and justice borne by violence and war are sometimes better than any conceivable alternative.

Surely the pope knows this. Or is he really saying that pacifism is now the only path that leads to peace? If so, he’s fortunate to live in Western Europe, where the doctrine won’t be put to the test any time soon! Besides, even the Vatican has the Swiss Guard. Even in their silly uniforms, they look well-prepared to throw a punch or wrestle someone to the ground. And surely they can do so without violating Jesus’ words about “turning the other cheek.”

The problem with pacifism is not that you get to oppose violent intervention in Syria or Iraq, but that you must also oppose it, for example, to prevent further genocide in places like Darfur or Rwanda. You must oppose violent force by your local police—including even tasers and billy clubs—not to mention violent force in your own home, even to defend the lives of your family.

Do we really believe that violence is never the path to peace? Does the pope?

Even if he’s saying that, he’s not really saying that, as some Vatican press flunky will surely point out.

Anyway, I’ll leave it to Cranmer’s satirical blog, and this sharp post from the Rev. Dr. Peter Mullen, to put the pope’s remarks in historical perspective:

I perceive that this Pope of Rome hath departed so far from true doctrine as to stand in the following of Renaissance Humanism and that moreover he hath fallen in with the Pelagian or Manichæan thing which saith that acts be morally right or wrong in themselves without reference to the intention applied thereof. One might as well say, Your Grace, that the very stones are capable of palpable evil without there be any man which chucketh them.

Wherefrom cometh this worldly doctrine except it be a following after the fashion of the secular sort, of the unilateralism of them which do cloke their self-righteousness under the veil of pacifism and peacenickery? By the which the widow and the orphan go all unprotected and the innocent are preyed upon by the malice of our enemies.

As thou knowest also, and for which we daily thank Our Father in heaven, The Pope of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England.