February 2, 2016

John Wesley On What Every Methodist Preacher Should Preach #UMC

What did John Wesley expect his preachers to preach about? What should be the heart of their message? Near the end of his short book, A Plain Account of  Christian Perfection, the father of the Methodist movement said this:
Therefore, all our preachers should make a point of preaching perfection to believers constantly, strongly, and explicitly; and all believers should mind this one thing, and continually agonize for it (Seedbed, 2014, p. 109).
Wesley's desire was to be "a man of one book" - the Bible - and he neither apologized for nor shied away from the language in the Bible, including the language of "perfection" and "entire sanctification." If you are wondering how that language is used in scripture, take a look at Matthew 5:48, where Jesus issues the command: "Be perfect." Then flip over to Philippians 3:15, 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and 5:23, and 1 Peter 1:15-16. You'll also want to reflect on Romans 6:1-2 where Paul asks: "Shall we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?" He quickly answers his own question with an emphatic: "No!" That's right; Paul said believers should not continue in sin. Wesley read these and many other passages and realized that the call to holiness pervades scripture. It's everywhere.

God's Purpose for Methodists

Wesley also believed with his whole being that God had called him and the Methodists to be a reviving and revitalizing presence in the Church of England in the 18th century. At the heart of that call was the proclamation of the biblical doctrine of holiness (or entire sanctification or Christian perfection). And he insisted that every Methodist preacher preach this doctrine. That's what it meant to be Methodist. Wesley identity was so shaped by this call that he persevered through suffering and persecution. His preaching of holiness was strongly opposed, and sometimes he was in physical danger only because he insisted on a commitment to the language of scripture. Nevertheless, Wesley was called by God to this vocation. No opposition would make him waver.

What is Christian Perfection

Given the importance of the doctrine of Christian perfection to Methodist identity, it is exceedingly important to understand Wesley's definition of Christian perfection. All too often people hear the word "perfection" and reject the doctrine outright never taking the time to get clear on what it means. If you asked Mr. Wesley what he meant by entire sanctification or Christian perfection, he would tell you that he simply means a heart filled to overflowing with love of God and love of neighbor. Holiness is what happens when you love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. It is being happy in God and having the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the joy of one's heart. When you are filled with God's perfect love, Wesley would suggest, you cannot at the same time be sinning against God. We have to resist the love of God to start sinning against God. If we are loving Christ with all our energy, then we won't be stealing, lying coveting, deceiving, etc. We have to stop loving Jesus to start sinning against him.

Wesley was also insistent on what Christian perfection is not. In his sermon on "Christian Perfection" he said that it is not freedom from (1) mistake, (2) infirmity, (3) ignorance, or (4) temptation. Scripture is not calling for the absolute and unqualified perfection that belongs to God alone. Instead, the call to holiness is the call to keep the two greatest commandments: love God and neighbor with everything you've got. You may make a mistake, call someone by the wrong name, for example But that's not outright rebellion, and that's not the sort of thing we're talking about when it comes to Christian perfection. You may have some handicap that's not moral in nature; that's what Wesley meant by infirmity. You can love God and not have perfect knowledge of all things. You can even be tempted and not sin (see Hebrews 4:15). So, when Wesley talks about Christian perfection, he is not offering an unqualified expectation for absolute perfection in every possible way. Don't think that he is. He is calling for passionate giving of the self to Jesus with nothing held back. Wesley was convinced from scripture that when we release ourselves to Christ in that way the Holy Spirit is able to set us free from inward and outward sin. 

The Heart of a New Revival

The heart of the Wesleyan revival was the preaching of Christian perfection. Sadly, however, this doctrine no longer appears to characterize the landscape of Methodist preaching. I am encouraged, however, that there is renewed interest and attention in some corners of the Wesleyan/Methodist movement to preaching the gospel with a Wesleyan accent; that is, preaching the cross and resurrection of Christ as the means of grace not only to forgive sin but to bear the fruit of holiness in the people of God. More and more of our clergy and laity are rediscovering Wesley and following his example with regard to taking the words of Jesus seriously, the language of perfection and holiness not least. More and more are catching Wesley's vision and following his instruction to preach entire sanctification "constantly, strongly, and explicitly." Perhaps God is not yet finished with the people called Methodist.

What do you think of Wesley's instructions? Have you ever preached or heard a sermon on Christian perfection? When was the last time you heard a sermon on holiness? 

January 25, 2016

The Resurrection in the Creed, Part 1 @sowhat_podcast

The newest episode of the So What? Podcast went live today. This one is in two parts, and the topic is one of my favorites. That's right: Kyle, Dave, Brad, and I are talking about the resurrection of Jesus. We dig into what it means and why it matters as an article of faith. What are the objections to Jesus' resurrection? What's the rationale behind those objections? Does it matter if Jesus was or was not physically raised from the dead? What does the resurrection of Jesus have to do with our salvation? With Christian identity? What is the relationship between the resurrection of Jesus in the past and the resurrection of believers in the future? Click the player to listen now. If you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe.

January 14, 2016

Preaching to Inspire Generosity: New Article on #Stewardship @PreachingMag

I've got a new article up at Preaching.com. Here's the intro: 
No one likes a sermon about money. The people in the pews don’t like them for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s because they have felt manipulated or scammed by a preacher trying to line his own pockets. Other times they feel convicted because they don’t give as much as they should and hearing a sermon on stewardship only reminds them of their sin. Preachers don’t like giving sermons on money because we know members of the congregation don’t like listening to them. It creates tension in the worship service. And we don’t want that. Stewardship sermons often feel like something to be endured rather than a vital opportunity to grow in grace and faith as a follower of Jesus. But what if there is a way to reframe sermons on money so that they proved to be a joy rather than a burden? What if preachers and their congregations actually looked forward to the stewardship series instead of dreading it? I believe it can be done. 

December 14, 2015

Moltmann on the Immortal Soul vs. Bodily Resurrection

The immortality of the soul is an opinion - the resurrection of the dead is a hope. The first is a trust in something immortal in the human being, the second a trust in the God who calls into being the things that are not, and makes the dead live. In trust in the immortal soul we accept death, and in a sense anticipate it. In trust in the life-creating God we await the conquest of death - 'death is swallowed up in victory' (I Cor. 15.54) - and an eternal life in which 'death shall be no more' (Rev. 21.4). The immortal soul may welcome death as a friend, because death releases it from the earthly body; but for the resurrection hope, death is 'the last enemy' (I Cor. 15.26) of the living God and the creations of his love (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, 65-66).
In short, the immortality of the soul is not a Christian doctrine. Resurrection of the body is. 

December 1, 2015

Initial Thoughts on Paul and the Gift by John Barclay #PTG @eerdmansbooks

I've recently begun working through John Barclay's highly anticipated new book Paul and the Gift. And at 582 pages (not counting bibliography and indices), it is quite a tome. Barclay is Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University in the UK. He has given a decade to researching and writing this book, and the quality of his research and argumentation is evident from the first page. Rather than waiting till I've finished to review it here, I thought I'd offer impressions and reflections along the way. After all, a full review would likely be somewhat lengthy for a single blog post. Instead, think of the series as a travelogue for a long journey. That said, let's be off.

First, the book is a study on the concept of grace in the letters of Paul. It is titled Paul and the Gift because the Greek word for "grace" is charis, which was the typical way to speak of a gift in the Greco-Roman world. Barclay argues that any Pauline theology of grace should be understood in light of the ancient context of gift-giving. That argument is rather straightforward and not all that surprising; that is, until we dig deeply into context of gift-giving in the ancient Mediterranean world, which takes us to the next reflection.

Second, the giving of gifts in the Greco-Roman period was radically different than the giving of gifts in the modern period. This is the argument that Barclay makes in chapter 1. We tend to think of gift-giving as something that is done out of sheer gratuity with no (or at least very few) strings attached. We often think in terms of "pure gift" or "free gift." Giving a gift to another person places no obligation on that person to reciprocate the gift. And when we come to the language of gift/grace in the New Testament, we read that language in light of our present day understanding of gifts - freely given, freely received. The problem, Barclay argues, is that our contemporary attitude toward gifts is substantially different than the attitudes toward gift-giving in the world of Paul and his contemporaries. In Paul's day, gifts were part of a culture-wide system of reciprocity and came with many a string attached. To give a gift was to place the recipient under obligation. This, of course, has implications for choosing the recipient of a gift, because you would want to make a gift to someone who could fulfill the obligation placed upon them. Typically, then, gifts were given to people in relatively similar social situations. To receive a gift was to receive the message that the giver considered you a person able to reciprocate the gift. Such a gift creates a social bond, because it is a way of recognizing the value or worth of the recipient.

Some implications of this should be clear even before getting to the exegetical portions of the book. What would it do to our theology of grace if the gift of God in Christ comes with strings attached? What if receiving the gift of grace puts us under obligation both to honor God and to obey him? There are implications for pastoral ministry, too. How many sermons have we heard that declare grace to be a "free gift" or a "pure gift" that depends on nothing in us and requires nothing from us? Working out the particulars of these questions will have to wait, but you see the importance of reading Paul's language of grace/gift within the context of Greco-Roman gift-giving.

Third, the scope of this book is remarkable. It is not merely a study of Paul in his context; it is also a reception history of Paul's theology of grace beginning with Marcion and proceeding through Augustine and the Reformers before moving to modern interpreters including Barth, Bultmann, Kasemann, Martyn, and those associated with the New Perspective on Paul, E.P. Sanders not least. This reception history is followed by an extended section on "Divine Gift in Second Temple Judaism," in which the diversity of Jewish views on grace are considered. At this point, you are 300 pages into the book, and you are just getting the New Testament exegetical portions which focus primarily on Galatians and Romans. Here's the point: Barclay has produced a methodologically robust study that deals with Paul in his context, through history, and in our contemporary context. And he is only focusing in depth on two letters. Imagine the possibilities of digging into the other Pauline epistles. Might there be a follow-up volume in the works?

Fourth, the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). I'll be brief here because I've only thus far read the introductory and concluding statements on Barclay's interaction with the NPP. Here's what he says to expect: E.P. Sanders and other advocates of the NPP argue that Judaism in Paul's day was a religion of grace. Barclay responds by arguing that "Grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism but not everywhere the same" (6). His point is that the NPP has given us a picture of Judaism that is insufficiently diverse. Paul was one voice in the middle of a debate on the nature of grace. Sanders made the mistake of reading different attitudes toward grace onto the Pauline texts without considering the extent to which Paul and his contemporaries might agree that God acts graciously toward his covenant people even though they disagree on the particulars of that grace. If this argument turns out to be successful, it will be a big problem for the NPP. I'm eager to dig into the details of that one, and I'll be interested to hear responses from NPP advocates.

I'll finish by saying it is very tempting to skip ahead to certain parts of this book that relate directly to my current research. And I may very well do that in order to keep my work moving at a good pace. Nevertheless, the quality of this volume makes me what to read it carefully cover to cover. So, even if I skip ahead, I'll be certain to go back and catch up anything I may have skipped over. There is much to be learned here.  

November 18, 2015

Would #PopeFrancis welcome Protestants to the Eucharist?

Pope Francis has developed a reputation for his fresh take on some long-standing Roman Catholic traditions. The debate between Ross Douthat and a number of Catholic theologians illustrates the range of reactions to the Pope's revisions. You can now add another controversy to the list. It isn't altogether clear, but the Pope appears to have encouraged a Lutheran woman to go forward to take the Eucharist with her Roman Catholic husband. The issue arose as Pope Francis was addressing a group of Evangelical Lutherans in Rome. One woman asked: 
My name is Anke de Bernardinis and, like many women in our community, I am married to an Italian, who is a Roman Catholic Christian. We have lived happily together for many years, sharing joys and sorrows. And so we greatly regret being divided in faith and not being able to participate together in the Lord’s Supper. What can we do to achieve, finally, communion on this point?
The Pope's off-the-cuff reply did not explicitly permit the woman to receive the Eucharist with her husband, but neither was it forbidden. Here's the most important part of what the Pope said (read the rest here):
To your question, I can only respond with a question: What can I do with my husband, so that the Lord’s Supper accompanies me on my path? It is a problem that everyone has to answer, but a pastor-friend once told me: “We believe that the Lord is present there, he is present. You all believe that the Lord is present. And so what’s the difference?”—“Eh, there are explanations, interpretations.” Life is bigger than explanations and interpretations.
Always refer back to baptism. “One faith, one baptism, one Lord.” This is what Paul tells us, and from there take the consequences.
I would never dare to give permission for this, because it’s not my jurisdiction. “One baptism, one Lord, one faith.” Talk to the Lord and then go forward. I don’t dare to say anything more.
Four questions come to mind. 
  1. Does the Pope see substantial differences between Catholic and Protestant theologies of the Eucharist? In my reading, the Pope's recollection (and affirmation?) of his pastor-friend's comments at best muddles the difference between the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation and the various Protestant understandings of what happens at the Lord's Table. Without getting into the particulars, it is remarkable that a Pope would make a remark that could be interpreted as disregarding the difference between Catholic and Protestant Eucharistic theologies. To suggest that the doctrine of Transubstantiation is a matter of interpretation and that the really important thing is that "the Lord is present" regardless of how you parse it out seems to me to strike at the heart of Roman Catholic doctrine and worship. Definitely not the sort of thing you would expect the Pope to say. 
  2. Would Francis permit this Lutheran woman to go forward and receive the Eucharist in a Roman Catholic Mass? He certainly doesn't forbid it, which seems to me to imply permission. It's almost as if he's saying, "This one is above my pay grade. Who am I to bar one who has faith in Christ from the Lord's table?" Again, this is a stunning thing for a Pope to say.
  3. What are the implications for global Christian unity? For centuries, Catholic refusal to admit Protestants to the Lord's Table symbolized the division of the global Church. The Pope's answer seems to imply a radical change in Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. In the view of this Protestant pastor, it is a welcome change. Christ prayed fervently for the unity of his Church. The Lord's Table is central to that unity. This move by Francis has potential to be highly significant as a step toward global Christian unity. 
  4. What exactly did he mean? As the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has the responsibility to clarify his muddled comments. He should take the time to reflect and make a clear pastoral statement on the issue. Would he admit Protestants to the Eucharist? The lack of clarity is not helpful. He needs to say what he thinks about this matter. 


November 9, 2015

New @SoWhat_Podcast: Mary, the Creed, and the Virgin Birth

Be sure to take a listen to the latest edition of the So What? Podcast. We are continuing our movement through the Apostles' Creed, and this episode is devoted to Mary and the virginal conception of Jesus. What's the point? What's at stake? Why does it matter? So what? Take a listen and let us know what you think. And be sure to follow, we've got a great interview with a special guest coming up soon.

October 20, 2015

Introducing the So What? Podcast (@sowhat_podcast)

I'm excited to share with readers that I've recently begun contributing to the So What? Podcast, which is produced by People of Mars Hill here in Mobile. We are currently working through the Apostles' Creed line by line. Episode 4 has just been released, which is on the creedal affirmation that Jesus Christ is God's only Son and our Lord. I'm grateful to KyleDave, and Brad for the opportunity to take part in this, and I'm very excited about plans for upcoming episodes. So keep an eye out for future posts to stay up to date with the news. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. And be sure to check out the website, especially if you might be curious to know what I look like as a cartoon. Here's the audio stream for the new episode in which we dig into questions of what it means for Jesus to be both Christ and Lord. And why does it matter? How does our creedal confession about Jesus relate to what scripture says about him? And is the Creed simply a matter of mental assent? Or is something more going on? Be sure to listen to the end for a few extras. Enjoy.

October 15, 2015

Here's My New 7 Minute Seminary: Is Sin Essential? #UMC @OfficialSeedbed

Is sin essential to human experience? What if it's not? What if Jesus died so we could stop sinning? What if full human life is a fully holy life? What if becoming human means becoming holy?

October 13, 2015

Turn Up the Heat: #PlannedParenthood is on the Ropes (#DefundPP #ProtestPP)

The Wall Street Journal is reporting today that Planned Parenthood has decided to stop "taking reimbursements for procuring fetal tissue." For those who need a translation of this "newspeak" into the language of everyday folk, they plan to stop selling baby parts. Here's the report: 
Planned Parenthood Federation of America said it is immediately stopping taking reimbursements for procuring fetal tissue for medical research, an attempt to tamp down controversy that has led to Republican investigations in Congress and efforts to end federal funding.
Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said in a letter Tuesday to the National Institutes of Health that the organization’s affiliates will no longer accept any reimbursements for costs associated with procuring tissue from abortions. Fetal tissue has been provided by affiliates in California and Washington state, and the Washington clinics haven’t been taking any money for it, she said. The Oregon affiliate has been providing placental tissue for reimbursement. Planned Parenthood didn’t disclose the amount it will forgo with its new policy.
What this means, of course, is that Planned Parenthood is on the ropes. The investigative videos released by The Center for Medical Progress have hit the nation's largest abortion provider. They've hit them hard. So hard that the abortion giant appears willing to give up a rather lucrative aspect of their business in order to survive. Planned Parenthood is doing this in an effort to satisfy critics and get the public and Congress off their backs. 

We must remember, however, that selling baby bodies is not Planned Parenthood's greatest sin. Their greatest sin is killing babies. Their unjust business model is a murderous one, and it involves the murder of the most vulnerable people in our society at that. The fact that they intend to stop taking money from selling the pieces of their victims does not mean that they are off the hook. They are still treacherous. We must continue to stand against their slaughter of the innocents

This is a good time to remember the principle of pursuit. In battle, when your opponent retreats, you don't give them time to regroup, replenish, and gather new strength. Instead, you give chase. Pursue. Go after them. Strike harder and with increasing intensity. Finish the job. Win the battle. Planned Parenthood is trying to put out the fire, which means it's time to turn up the heat.