• Preaching •
December 16, 2005
“In the past,” wrote the author of Hebrews, “God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways. But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe” [Heb. 1:1-2]. The God who reveals Himself (Deus Revelatus) has spoken supremely and definitively through His Son.
December 15, 2005
Preach the Word! That simple imperative frames the act of preaching as an act of obedience. That is where any theology of preaching must begin. Preaching did not emerge from the church’s experimentation with communication techniques. The church does not preach because preaching is thought to be a good idea or an effective technique. Rather, we preach because we have been commanded to preach.
October 11, 2005
September 13, 2005
September 10, 2005
Allen C. Guelzo has written an insightful and argumentative review essay on recent interpretations of Jonathan Edwards. In “Unpalatable to Modern Sensibilities,” Guelzo reviews Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical, by Philip F. Gura – and then goes on to raise larger questions.
Guelzo’s article addresses several controversial issues in Edwards scholarship of recent years, and he steps on many scholarly toes. But his essay makes what I consider to be a very important point. Many recent works on Jonathan Edwards are attempts to turn him into what he certainly was not — a theologian who would fit nicely into the world of modern and postmodern thought.
Gura concedes that “Edwards couched his vision in language that many today would find offensive, or at least unpalatable.” That is an understatment. Just try reading “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” at the local Rotary meeting (or at many churches, for that matter).
Guelzo counters Gura: Still, there is a very real sense in which Edwards, if he cannot be stretched so thin as to provide a theologian for the age of therapy, still has reason to be considered “America’s Evangelical.” But even this is because the Edwards who survived the apparent death of his reputation in 1758 acquired his outsized standing over the following century at the expense of the very things the historical Edwards thought were the most important.
More: Gura is astute enough to see how American evangelicalism has re-made Edwards into something it can admire and “trumpeted him as the progenitor of a remarkable American spirituality”; but apparently that only gives Gura permission to do likewise for those today who are “unaffiliated with any explicitly religious tradition” and who simply want to “reconceive the tenor of the spiritual life.” And there is nothing which Jonathan Edwards would have found more bleakly abhorrent.
Guelzo criticizes Iain Murray for a lack of primary research in writing his Edwards biography, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, but he also concedes that Murray is “by the way, quite a good writer and quite well-read in Edwards’ published works and the secondary literature on Edwards.” He then went on to argue that it is Murray who comes closest to presenting Edwards as he actually was, “an utter partisan of Calvinist orthodoxy with the brains and inclination to confront the most abstruse intellectual challenges to that orthodoxy, a man of the most solemn integrity who would rather be broken by the storm than bend to the self-serving wishes of his own times and his own congregation, a man of ideas for whom personalities come in a distant second.”
From the real Jonathan Edwards:
Whoever thou art, whether young or old, little or great, if thou art in a Christless, unconverted state, this is the wrath, this is the death to which thou art condemned. This is the wrath that abideth on thee; this is the hell over which thou hangest, and into which thou art ready to drop every day and every night. If thou shalt remain blind, and hard, and dead in sin a little longer, this destruction will come upon thee: God hath spoken and he will do it. It is vain for thee to flatter thyself with hopes that thou shalt avoid it, or to say in thine heart, perhaps it will not be; perhaps it will not be just so; perhaps things have been represented worse than they are. [From "The Future Punishment of the Wicked: Unavoidable and Intolerable."]
The greater the mercy of God is, the more should you be engaged to love him, and live to his glory. But it has been contrariwise with you; the consideration of the mercies of God being so exceeding great, is the thing wherewith you have encouraged yourself in sin. You have heard that the mercy of God was without bounds, that it was sufficient to pardon the greatest sinner, and you have upon that very account ventured to be a very great sinner. Though it was very offensive to God, though you heard that God infinitely hated sin, and that such practices as you went on in were exceeding contrary to his nature, will, and glory, yet that did not make you uneasy; you heard that he was a very merciful God, and had grace enough to pardon you, and so cared not how offensive your sins were to him. How long have some of you gone on in sin, and what great sins have some of you been guilty of, on that presumption! Your own conscience can give testimony to it, that this has made you refuse God’s calls, and has made you regardless of his repeated commands. Now, how righteous would it be if God should swear in his wrath, that you should never be the better for his being infinitely merciful!. [From "The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners."]
There also the hateful nature of our sins is manifested in the most affecting manner possible: as we see the dreadful effects of them, in that our Redeemer, who undertook to answer for us, suffered for them. And there we have the most affecting manifestation of God’s hatred of sin, and his wrath and justice in punishing it; as we see his justice in the strictness and inflexibleness of it; and his wrath in its terribleness, in so dreadfully punishing our sins, in one who was infinitely dear to him, and loving to us. So has God disposed things, in the affair of our redemption, and in his glorious dispensations, revealed to us in the gospel, as though everything were purposely contrived in such a manner, as to have the greatest possible tendency to reach our hearts in the most tender part, and move our affections most sensibly and strongly. How great cause have we therefore to be humbled to the dust, that we are no more affected! [From "A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections," Part One, Section Three.]
September 6, 2005
Niall Ferguson — our greatest living historian of empire, and a generally sound thinker — really misses the mark when he addresses the meaning of Hurricane Katrina.
Writing in The Telegraph [London], Ferguson [a professor of history at Harvard University] looked back to the awful Lisbon earthquake of 1755. That disaster in Portugal rocked the Western world — quite literally — and caused many to wonder about the power and character of God. Ferguson cites the French philosopher Voltaire, who seized the opportunity to offer an atheistic interpretation of the disaster, arguing that the earthquake proved nothing more than the randomness of chance.
“What will the preachers say?,” Voltaire taunted. He insisted that the only proper interpretation of the disaster was rooted in atheism, and he wanted others to follow his lead.
Ferguson writes: That, unfortunately, was wishful thinking. On the contrary, the most common human response to a natural disaster is to reaffirm rather than to repudiate religious faith. Religion, after all, has its prehistoric origins in man’s desire to discern some purposeful agency in the workings of nature. The Old Testament, I need hardly remind you, interprets the flood of Noah’s time as a divinely ordained purge of a sinful world. Perhaps predictably, the Methodist John Wesley attributed the Lisbon earthquake to “sin… that curse that was brought upon the earth by the original transgression of Adam and Eve“.
More: The reality is, of course, that natural disasters have no moral significance. They just happen, and we can never exactly predict when or where. In 2003 – to take just a single year – 41,000 people died in Iran when an earthquake struck the city of Bam, more than 2,000 died in a smaller earthquake in Algeria, and just under 1,500 died in India in a freak heatwave. Altogether, at least 100 Americans were killed that year as a result of storms or forest fires.
Natural disasters – please, let’s not call them “Acts of God” – killed many more people than international terrorism that year (according to the State Department, total global casualties due to terrorism in 2003 were 4,271, of whom precisely none were in North America). On the other hand, disasters kill many fewer people each year than heart disease (around seven million), HIV/Aids (around three million) and road traffic accidents (around one million). No doubt if all the heart attacks or car crashes happened in a single day in a single city, we would pay them more attention than we do.
As Voltaire understood, hurricanes, like earthquakes, should serve to remind us of our common vulnerability as human beings in the face of a pitiless Nature. Too bad that today, just as in 1755, we prefer to interpret them in spurious ways, that divide rather than unite us.
Well, naturalism just will not do. We are not merely vulnerable “as human beings in the face of a pitiless Nature.” We are sinful human beings in the face of a holy God. Nature is not our judge — God is.
I have warned of those who claim to know just why this disaster fell upon these specific victims. There are those ready to identify New Orleans as a uniquely sinful city, and to suggest that God had simply had enough of that region’s sinful ways.
God is sovereign, and His ways are always right. He is in control of every molecule in the cosmos at all times. But He has not granted us the authority to explain why this city is destroyed while those of equal sinfulness remain dry. Beyond this, Scripture is sufficiently clear about the nature of sin for all of us to be aware that every single one of us — and every single city, village, and town — deserves destruction and wrath. The remarkable truth is that God allows sinners to live, and loves sinners to the extent that He gave His own Son for our redemption. We dare not claim to speak on God’s behalf.
But Niall Ferguson reminds us of the opposite error — the error of assuming that such disasters offer proof that there is no God, or that there is no God who matters. Ferguson wants to remove God from the question, and then to encourage people to be kind to each other in the face of nature’s fury.
Naturalism is a dead-end street. It may offer an intellectual escape for those who cannot trust God in the midst of the storm, but it offers no foundation for why people should respond with care, benevolence, and love. If “Nature” is all that matters, we are robbed of all moral meaning. Life is just one short trial from the womb to the grave. The only way to avoid the language Ferguson finds so objectionable — “acts of God” — is to believe in no God at all, or in a God who doesn’t act. That just isn’t the God of the Bible.
September 4, 2005
Tony Campolo suggests that the Old Testament never asserts the omnipotence of God. Thus, he advises that we should not suggest that God could have prevented Hurricane Katrina from devastating the Gulf coast. Raising the question, “Why didn’t God do something?,” Campolo responds:
Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad answers. One such answer is that somehow all suffering is a part of God’s great plan. In the midst of agonies, someone is likely to quote from the Bible, telling us that if we would just be patient, we eventually would see “all things work together for the good, for those who love God, and are called according to His purposes.” (Romans 8:28)
August 25, 2005
Once again, I had the honor of preaching the Opening Convocation address for The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College. I preached from 2 Corinthians 4:1-18. The message, “By the Mercy of God: Why Would God Call People Like Us to a Ministry Like This?,” is now available on-line as an audio file.
August 11, 2005