Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Keller’

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

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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 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

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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 »

Sermon 08-13-17: “Living at the End of the Age”

September 7, 2017

This sermon is about Second Coming of Jesus Christ. I chose to preach this doctrine because of Peter’s words in 1 Peter 4:7a: “The end of all things is at hand.” Does this mean that Peter expected that the Second Coming would happen at any moment? Probably not. He knew, based on the teaching of Jesus, that there were signs in history that must occur before that happened. I explore these signs and talk about the most important thing we Christians should do while we wait.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 4:7-11

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

Last Christmas, in the New York Times, op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristoff interviewed one of my favorite contemporary preachers, Tim Keller, who, until his retirement a couple of months ago, pastored a large, multi-campus church in Manhattan. Kristoff said, “I deeply admire Jesus and his message, but am also skeptical of themes that have been integral to Christianity — the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles and so on.”

So Kristoff wanted to know if he could still be a Christian if he didn’t believe “the miracles and so on.” And Keller told him, politely, no—it’s not possible. And of course that’s right. In many ways, Kristoff wanted to do what Thomas Jefferson did: remove all the supernatural stuff from the gospels and focus on Jesus’ teaching. His teaching is great, after all. Or as Kristoff said, “I deeply admire Jesus and his message.”

But I wonder if Kristoff really understands what Jesus’ message is. Now, he likely has in mind Jesus’ great moral teaching, as in the Sermon on the Mount and in many of his parables. You don’t have to be a Christian, after all, to appreciate that Jesus is the greatest moral teacher who ever lived. But what about the rest of Jesus’ teaching? One scholar I read estimates that fully 20 percent of Jesus’ teaching has to do with events associated with his Second Coming.

If Kristoff and many others think Jesus was onto something when he taught about morality, maybe they should hear what he has to say about this other important doctrine.

So that’s what I want to do in today’s sermon: talk about the Second Coming. The reason it comes up is because of what Peter says in verse 7: “The end of all things is at hand”—and this fact ought to dictate how we live. Read the rest of this entry »

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 2)

August 15, 2017

Hillary Clinton and Bill Shillady

(To read Part 1 of this series, click here.]

Last week, CNN interviewed Hillary Clinton’s pastor, the Rev. Bill Shillady, a United Methodist, on the eve of the publication of his new devotional book. The interviewer asked him if his faith was challenged by the election results. He said the following:

It wasn’t a challenge to my faith in terms of believing or not believing in God. I’m a bit of a process theologian, which means that, as life goes along, I believe in an all-loving God who may not always be in control, rather than an all-powerful God who is not loving. But I was definitely depressed for a few months after the election.

Frankly, if that were the choice we Christians face—between a God who is all-powerful but not all loving or all-loving but not not all-powerful—then we’d all have good reason to be depressed! If it were true that our all-loving God “may not always be in control,” then how can we possibly trust or depend on him? After all, God makes many promises to his children in scripture. How do we know that he has the power to fulfill them?

Fortunately, the Rev. Shillady has offered us a false choice: to say the least, God can be all-loving and all-powerful and also allow Donald Trump to be president! And that would be equally true if Clinton had won.

What’s tragic, however, is that so many Methodist laypeople, Secretary Clinton included, are being taught otherwise!

Still, Shillady’s words are a timely reminder of why we need a firm grasp on God’s providence.

So let’s go back to the controversial 2007 post from pastor John Piper, which he wrote after the 35W bridge collapsed and killed 35 people and injured 145. Was Piper right or wrong?

Piper begins by saying that on the night the bridge collapsed, the appointed scripture for his family devotion time was Luke 13:1-5. He writes, “It was not my choice. This is surely no coincidence.” I assume Piper means that the reading came by way of a pre-determined calendar of scripture readings or a devotional book.

If so, Jesus’ words in that passage couldn’t be more timely. Jesus and his disciples have just received breaking news: Pontius Pilate massacred Galilean worshipers in the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s likely that the messengers who delivered the news expected Jesus to endorse a widely held theological interpretation of tragedies such as this one: God was punishing its victims for their particular sins. Instead, Jesus says the following:

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Notice that Jesus’ other example of recent tragedy—a tower falling on people—couldn’t be more closely related to the 35W bridge disaster. So I agree with Piper: The fact that this scripture was the appointed text on this particular evening is surely no coincidence… Unless of course meticulous providence doesn’t exist, in which case coincidences abound.

Because even my saying that this was “no coincidence” requires a lot of providential string-pulling: For example, months or years earlier, God, foreseeing the 35W bridge tragedy, inspired someone—a devotional writer or publisher—to choose Luke 13:1-5 as the reading for this particular day, after which God made sure that this devotional book got into the hands of John Piper and his family, and they were reading from it the night of the tragedy.

Pastor and author Tim Keller makes a similar point about the establishment of his church, Redeemer Presbyterian, in Manhattan:

Redeemer exists to a great degree because my wife, Kathy, and I were set to New York City to start this as a new church. Why were we sent? It was because we joined a Presbyterian denomination that encouraged church planting and that sent us out. But why did we join a Presbyterian denomination? We joined it because in the very last semester of my last year at seminary, I had two courses under a particular professor who convinced me to adopt the doctrines and beliefs of Presbyterianism. But why was that professor at the seminary at that time? He was there only because, after a long period of waiting, he was finally able to get his visa as a citizen of Great Britain to come and teach in the United States.

This professor had been hired by my U.S. seminary but had been having a great deal of trouble getting a visa. For various reasons at the time the process was very clogged and there was an enormous backlog of applications.

What was it that broke through all the red tape so he could get his visa and come in time to teach me that last semester? I was told that his visa process was facilitated because one of the students at our seminary at the time was able to give the school administration an unusually high-level form of help. The student was the son of the sitting president of the United States at the time. Why was his father president? It was because the former president, Richard Nixon, had to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal. But why did the Watergate scandal even occur? I understand that it was because a night watchman noticed an unlatched door.

What if the security guard had not noticed the door? What if he had simply looked in a different direction. In that case – nothing else in that long string of ‘coincidences’ would have ever occurred. And there would be no Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the city. Do you think all that happened by accident? I don’t. If that did not all happen by accident, nothing happens by accident.

I like to say to people at Redeemer: If you are glad for this church, then even Watergate happened for you.

Very seldom do we glimpse even a millionth of the ways that God is working all things together for good for those who love God. But he is.[†]

Even Watergate happened for you. 

Do we believe that God has the power to work in the world like this? Do we believe that God loves us enough to work in the world like this?

If not, then let’s stop thanking God for happy coincidences. They are nothing more than the outworking of blind physical forces and ungoverned human will.

And you might say, “Yes, but I believe God’s providence applies to good things that happen in the world! Every good thing happens for a reason, just not the bad things!”

With a moment’s reflection, however, I think you’ll see that you can’t have one without the other. God will often have to work through pain, suffering, sin, and evil—as he did in the events of Watergate—to arrive at those events that are good for us and our world—for example, the founding of Redeemer. Besides, as Job wisely said, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” We can know that Job was espousing good theology, by the way, because the very next sentence tells us, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.”

Years ago, during a wilderness period in my spiritual life, I was a skeptic on the doctrine of providence. When I heard someone thank God for something that I considered trivial, I often thought, without saying out loud, “If you’re going to thank God for something that goes your way, are you prepared to blame God when things don’t go your way?”

Although I would never put it like that today, my logic was sound: If God is in control, he’s in control all the way. It cannot be the case that we live in a world in which some things “just happen,” as I’ve heard more than a few pastors say, while other things reflect God’s providence. Why? Because the things that “just happen” affect everything else in the world. There’s a ripple effect—or as Keller puts it, a “butterfly effect”—of unimaginable consequences from even one small, seemingly insignificant event. Not to mention that all along that causal chain, God’s people are praying, and the God to whom they’re praying has promised to answer our prayers and grant our petitions.

Years ago, I argued with a friend in ministry about whether “God cares who wins the Super Bowl.” I was emphatic: Of course God cares! How could he not? He’s got players, coaches, team owners, front-office personnel, stadium vendors, and fans of both teams, all of whom God loves and all of whom care passionately about who wins and loses. For many, their livelihoods depend on or are deeply affected by the game’s outcome. Moreover, many of them are Christians who are praying to a God who tells them in his Word that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” All means all, including the snap of every ball in every play!

Why would a Christian believe that God doesn’t care about who wins the Super Bowl? Do we believe that God has “more important” things to care about—global terrorism, hunger, nuclear proliferation, racism, etc.? In which case, we think, God is “too big” to care about something small and insignificant like a football game. In believing this, however, we’re really saying that God is too small to care: He’s merely a bigger, more perfect version of ourselves: like us, he has a limited amount of time and attention to give to things and people in the world. Every moment he spends redeeming a heartbreaking loss for an Atlanta Falcons player (or fan) is one less moment he has to spend on North Korea’s nuclear program.

Is my logic wrong here? Is the underlying assumption not a faulty belief that we’re competing for God’s attention alongside billions of other people or things in the universe?

Anyway, I didn’t make it more than three paragraphs into Piper’s essay, and I’ve written over 1,700 words. I’ll write more soon!

Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 265-6.

Was the older son really the “good” son?

June 30, 2017

The older son from Rembrandt’s painting.

In my second of two sermons on the Prodigal Son last Sunday (I promise I’ll post them soon!), I preached on the older son. He was, as I said on Sunday, at least as lost as the younger son. Yet we usually consider him the good son: “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.”

Is this true? Was the older son truly serving his father? Tim Keller doesn’t think so, and he uses the following story to illustrate why:

Once upon a time there was a gardener who grew an enormous carrot. So he took it to his king and said, “My Lord, this is the greatest carrot I’ve ever grown or ever will grow. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” The king was touched and discerned the man’s heart, so as [the gardener] turned to go the king said, “Wait! You are clearly a good steward of the earth. I own a plot of land right next to yours. I want to give it to you freely as a gift so you can garden it all.” And the gardener was amazed and delighted and went home rejoicing. But there was a nobleman at the king’s court who overheard all this. And he said, “My! If that is what you get for a carrot–what if you gave the king something better?” So the next day the nobleman came before the king and he was leading a handsome black stallion. He bowed low and said, “My lord, I breed horses and this is the greatest horse I have ever bred or ever will. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” But the king discerned his heart and said thank you, and took the horse and merely dismissed him. The nobleman was perplexed. So the king said, “Let me explain. That gardener was giving me the carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse.”[†]

The older son, of course, was serving himself—giving to his father in order to receive. It was as if he were saying, “Because I’ve been faithful to my father—unlike my no-good brother—my father ought to reward me. I deserve to have the fattened calf killed; I deserve to have a party.” So when he hears that his father has instead thrown a party for his wayward brother, he’s filled with resentment: “What has he done to deserve that? Why not me?”

As I said in an earlier blog post, I am the older brother. Resentment and self-pity have harmed me badly over the years. They still do.

These feelings long predate my answering the call into ministry. But I now see that in answering the call, sin seized the opportunity, and I made an implicit agreement with God: “Because I’ve done this for you, Father, you’ll now do this for me. After all, look at how I’ve sacrificed for you! Why haven’t you killed the fattened calf? Why haven’t you thrown me a party?”

And like the older son, I have a difficult time, figuratively speaking, attending parties for others.

This Sunday, I’ll have the opportunity to explore the proper motivation for serving our Father, and how we achieve it, when we turn our attention to the apostle Peter’s words to slaves in 1 Peter 2:18-25.

Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God (New York: Dutton, 2008), 69-70.

Our only hope in life and death

June 22, 2017

Recently, I’ve become interested in catechesis, the instructions that the church gives to people who are going to be baptized or confirmed. Our church’s confirmation class, for example, is one form of catechesis: “Here are the essentials of the Christian faith and our Wesleyan movement. Here’s what it means to be a Christian. Here’s what it means to be a Methodist Christian.”

A couple of centuries ago, churches often expected confirmands and converts to memorize catechisms, a series of questions-and-answers about the doctrines of the faith, along with scripture references. Some churches still use these. Earlier this year, I began studying one famous catechism, which John Wesley adapted for us Methodists, the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The well-known first question and answer is the following:

Question 1. What is the chief end of man?

Answer. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Drawing upon classic Protestant catechisms of the past—like the Westminster Shorter and Heidelberg Catechisms—Crossway, publisher of the ESV Bible, recently produced The New City Catechism. Pastor Tim Keller, one of my favorite contemporary preachers, helped to put it together.

A couple of weeks ago, I bought the version that included devotionals—one historical and one contemporary—for each entry. John Wesley is one source for the historical devotionals. I’ve been reflecting on the first question and answer, which you can see in the photo above:

What is our only hope in life and death?

That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.[1]

The scripture reference is Romans 14:7-8: “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

I’ve written and preached before about my sinful tendency to compare myself to others. Even last Sunday, describing my experience the week before, I said the following:

I can hardly enjoy Annual Conference without looking over my shoulder at what my fellow clergy have—how prestigious their appointment is; how high their church’s steeple is; what awards and recognition they’ve received. And I compare myself to them, and I’m miserable because I worry that I’m falling behind.

Why do I do this? In part, it’s because I don’t believe that my only hope in life and death is that I belong to God and his Son Jesus. I place my hope in many other things: in career success, in other people’s opinions of me, in physical fitness, in my enjoyment of leisure time and hobbies. How do I know I do this? Because if something threatens any of these things, I fall apart. I’m filled with resentment.

Even last week in Athens, tendinitis in my left Achilles tendon (which is itself an “overuse” injury from trying to get in shape for an upcoming beach trip) prevented me from running in a 5K with my son Townshend. And I was so angry about it! Why? Because I derive some measure of my self-esteem from being able to compete (and beat) other people in 5K races. I place some measure of hope in this kind of success. And now—suddenly—my body tells me I can’t do that? Then what good am I? How will others know I’m valuable?

Yes, I know it’s ridiculous.

By contrast, suppose I believed—really believed—that my life was not my own; it belonged solely to the Lord. Suppose I believed that every moment of every day was his to do with as he pleases. Suppose my chief concern in life was pleasing the Lord and not myself?

“What a wonderful world this would be,” as the song says.

Are you like me? Are you placing your hope or hopes in something or someone other than Christ? Where are you placing them?

Here’s the prayer that accompanies the New City Catechism’s first devotional:

Christ Our Hope, in life and in death, we cast ourselves on your merciful, fatherly care. You love us because we are your own. We have no good apart from you, and we could ask for no greater gift than to belong to you. Amen.[2]

1. The New City Catechism Devotional (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 17.

2. Ibid., 19.

Sermon 05-21-17: “Craving the Pure Milk of God’s Word”

June 20, 2017

In today’s scripture, the apostle Peter quotes from Isaiah 40: “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass…” We Christians are often distracted by things in our lives that don’t last. Yet Peter is calling us to build our lives on a foundation that which lasts for eternity: the gospel of Jesus Christ and God’s Word. How do we do this? That’s what this sermon is about.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 1:22-2:3

One of my all-time favorite TV shows is Parks & Recreation, which features a character named Ron Swanson. In one episode, Ron gets taken to court. A couple of his friends who are called to testify on his behalf lie under oath—in order to protect their friend. Ron says, “Tom and April were excellent witnesses in my defense. Unfortunately every single word out of their mouths was a lie. There is only one thing I hate more than lying—skim milk, which is water that’s lying about being milk.”

My favorite character on my favorite TV show, Parks & Recreation: Ron Swanson. He’s famous for knowing how to be a man.


When did we all switch to skim milk? For my family, it was back in the early-’80s, when I was a kid. And I distinctly remember how, when I poured it over my Rice Krispies, it looked blue. Do you know what I’m talking about. I did not want to drink blue milk. Well, eventually I got used to it; and I bet many of you did, too. We got used to it because skim milk was supposed to be good for us.

Well, I read an article not long ago that said that we were sold a bill of goods. That long-term studies show that whole milk—milk that stays white when you pour it over cereal—might actually be better for you than skim milk, and help you lose weight more effectively than skim milk. For one thing, the article said, it helps you feel full, so you eat less.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, and I’m not recommending that you make the switch without consulting with your doctor, but that was just the excuse that I needed. So I switched back to whole milk. And I’m much happier. And my cat, too. He’s always at my feet at the breakfast table when I eat cereal. Because he loves whole milk and expects me to put the bowl on the floor when I finish up.

So, accept no substitutes: I don’t want water that’s lying about being milk; I won’t settle for watered-down milk; I want milk. Pure whole milk.

And in today’s scripture, Peter makes a similar point: Accept no substitutes, he says. “Long for,” or crave, “pure spiritual milk.” Don’t settle for anything less than that. Read the rest of this entry »

My old blogging nemesis is at it again

May 18, 2017

My old blogging nemesis, Jason Micheli, a United Methodist pastor and author, is at it again. In this recent post, he describes a conversation with a father who lost his son to a tragic accident. Then he complains about Christians who tried to comfort this father with words about God’s “having a plan” for his son’s death.

Micheli writes the following (emphasis his):

Contra the false teaching of the “God has a plan…” variety:

The test of whether or not our speech about God is true isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable, emotionally resonant or culled from scripture.

The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.

To preach a sovereign God of absolute will who causes suffering and tragedy for a ‘greater purpose’ is not only to preach a God who trucks in suffering and evil but a God who gives meaning to it.

A God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.

I don’t know what he means by a “God of absolute will.” I disagree that God uses anything for “His own self-realization,” since God is perfectly, fully realized. And I hope that God gives meaning to evil and suffering. But my point in the following comment, as I’ve said many times before, is that even if God merely allows evil and suffering—having the power to prevent it—God is ultimately responsible for it.

So here’s my comment. (Micheli recently wrote a book about his own experience with what he calls “stage serious” cancer. It’s in remission.):

Jason,

I can’t comprehend the complete lack of engagement with scripture in this post. Providence is an idea that’s writ large across the entire Bible, and one endorsed by the consensual teaching of the Church. I’ve read the DB Hart book. It doesn’t, in my opinion, satisfactorily engage the question.

Does God govern the universe and our lives within it, or doesn’t he? Does God have the power to prevent the death of a child or doesn’t he? As long as God has the power to prevent the death of a child and doesn’t use that power, God is not off the hook for suffering and evil. Even if we say, in this instance, “God lets the laws of physics run their course,” we still ought to “blame” God (if you insist on that word)—first because he created these physical laws, and second, because we believe that God answers prayer, at least sometimes.

We pray for our children’s safety. God grants that petition or doesn’t. If he doesn’t, how do we interpret it: Did God not hear our petition? Does he not have the power to grant it? Does he act arbitrarily? Or does he have a reason for either granting it or not? Is there some alternative I’m leaving out? Surely I don’t need to cite proof-texts to back up my position, because there are plenty—whereas, on your side, you have David Bentley Hart and the “God of the philosophers.”

In your case, haven’t you thanked God for sending your cancer into remission? Or did God not have anything to do with it?

Anyway, I’d recommend this father read Tim Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. And you too! You may disagree with Keller, but it won’t be because Keller hasn’t thought it through. Nor is he some kind of demon from hell because he disagrees with you.

Has something become our “functional savior” in place of Jesus?

April 27, 2017

I’ve been teaching a Bible study on Galatians every Wednesday night for a few months now. In my opinion, it’s one of the best things I’ve done in my ministry so far. Last night we covered Galatians 3:1-6. You may recall that Paul is writing to a church that is being led astray by “Judaizers,” Jewish Christians who are teaching Gentile Christians that they must also observe Jewish ceremonial law—like circumcision, dietary laws, and holidays—if they want to be fully Christian.

Paul tells the Galatians, emphatically, that to add anything to gospel of justification by faith alone, which he preached to them, is to lose the gospel entirely. In fact, he feels so strongly about this, he writes, “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.”

As I told the class last night, if we’re not careful, we can easily imagine that the gospel is something we need at the beginning of our Christian lives—when we first place our faith in Christ and are born again. But after we’re saved, well… then it’s up to us. We can easily turn the process of sanctification into a project of self-improvement. Becoming holy—moving on to perfection, as we Methodists say—becomes a matter of will power: Are you still struggling with sin? Try harder!

Paul would likely say that this quasi-gospel of “trying harder” is our attempt at “being perfected by the flesh” (v. 3). It will fail and lead to misery, as I know from personal experience. Like the Galatians, we don’t need a quasi-gospel; we need the real thing.

Tim Keller, in his Galatians for You commentary, picks up on this theme. Ultimately, he says, our failure to apply the gospel to our lives causes most of our problems:

So, we should not simply say: Lord, I have a problem with anger. Please remove it by your power! Give me the power to forgive. Rather, we should apply the gospel to ourselves at that point. Paul would tell us that uncontrolled bitterness is a result of not living in line with the gospel. It means that though we began with Jesus as Savior, something has now become our functional savior in place of Jesus. Instead of believing that Christ is our hope and goodness, we are looking to something else as a hope, to some other way to make us feel good and complete.

Instead of just hoping God will remove our anger or simply exercising will-power against it, we should ask: If I am being angry and unforgiving, what is it that I think I need so much? What is being withheld that I think that I must have if I am to feel complete to have hope, to be a person of worth? Usually, deep anger is because of something like that. It might be that we want comfort above all other things, and someone has made our lives harder, so we grow angry with them. It might be that we’re worshiping other people’s approval and so get angry with anyone who in some way thwarts our bid for popularity and respect.

Comfort, approval, and control; these are functional saviors. When they are blocked, we get bitter. The answer is not simply trying harder to directly control anger. It is repenting for the self-righteousness and the lack of rejoicing in the finished work of Christ which is at the root of the anger. As we make our hearts “look” at Christ crucified, the Spirit will work in us to replace that functional savior with the Savior.[†]

This resonates with me. What about you? What are the “functional saviors” in your life? How could the gospel save you from them?

Timothy Keller, Galatians for You (Purcellville, VA: The Good Book Company, 2013), 69-70.

When the apostle Paul steps on my toes

February 9, 2017

Rembrandt's Paul. He wouldn't really have been writing in a book.

Rembrandt’s Paul. He wouldn’t really have been writing in a book.

I’m currently teaching a Bible study on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. At last night’s study, we looked at Galatians 1:6-9.

Paul’s main concern here is that false teachers had infiltrated the Galatian churches, which Paul established on his first missionary journey, and were distorting the gospel he preached to them. These teachers, often called “Judaizers,” insisted that the Galatian Christians, many of whom were Gentiles, needed to observe Jewish ceremonial law in order to be fully Christian.

Keep in mind: the Judaizers’ error was subtle. As one Reformation-era theologian, Heinrich Bullinger, put it, they could affirm everything in the Apostles’ Creed. “What they denied,” however, “was that everything related to salvation was given by Christ alone.”

As you can see in Paul’s response, this seemingly small error was spiritually deadly.

In his Galatians for You commentary, Tim Keller asks us to consider ways in which contemporary Christians and churches make the same mistake. As I told the class, I see in my own preaching a tendency toward this error when I emphasize the necessity of “surrendering” our lives to Christ. While I like the language of surrender, the problem, as Keller describes it, is that we can overemphasize our human action at the expense of God’s grace.

Surrendering to Christ, in other words, can become more about us than Jesus ChristIt can become a measure of the strength and purity of our faith, or the thoroughness of our repentance. We can turn “faith” itself into a kind of meritorious work that we must perform for God before he saves us the “rest of the way.”

In which case, what we do is very small, but it’s hardly nothing. And contrary to Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:8-9, our efforts would be something about which we could boast.

No. Paul would remind us that saving faith and repentance are not something that we muster on our own, apart from the prevenient grace of God. The biblical kind of surrender that we need to make to God is one that says, “I give up! I am helpless. I can do nothing to earn this gift of salvation. If I’m going to be saved, it’s going to be through Christ’s merit alone. Enable me depend on him completely for my salvation.”

Are you already a Christian? That means that you’re “in the process” of being saved—i.e., you’re being sanctified. God is enabling you to become more Christlike. Paul’s warning still applies: Sanctification is not self-improvement. It is God alone who sanctifies. Surrendering in this case would mean, just as before, trusting in Christ completely to do this good work within us.

But do we have to do anything? Well, yes—if you insist on looking at it from the human side of the equation. But, but, but… I can hardly say that without the legalist within puffing his chest out—or, depending on the day of the week, hanging his head in shame. 

I’ll leave it to John Piper to say the rest. This comes from his post, “Should We Teach that Good Works Come with Saving Faith?”:

I don’t think that question will ever be settled at the experiential level… because human beings are wired to be legalists. We are wired to trust in what we do as the ground of our assurance.

Now along comes a gospel preacher who says, “Christ died for your sins and he provided a righteousness, so that all of your guilt can be taken away and all the righteousness that God requires of you can be provided totally by another. And this forgiveness and righteousness is received totally by faith alone.” Then he follows it up in a subsequent message, saying, “The faith that justifies justifies by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. It will always be accompanied by graces like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.”

And as soon as you say that this faith is going to bear fruit, people shift back into their legalistic mode of “Oh, I see. We’re really justified by our works.” And it takes a lifetime of fighting that battle…