Psalm 41 and Holy Week

As we prepare for Holy Week, we should remember that the early church boldly decided to include in even the early eucharistic liturgies the phrase, “on the night in which he was betrayed.” They are, of course, following the apostle Paul who uses the phrase in 1 Corinthians 11:23 as he gives us that earliest liturgy. The reason, I think, is because betrayal is the sin that hurts the worst. The people of God expected to be hated by their enemies, but they hoped for loyalty from their closest friends. The fact that Jesus was betrayed by one of the Twelve is yet another sign that the passion of Jesus does not begin at Calvary, but was borne throughout His earthly life.

Psalm 41 gives us an insight into this as we prepare for Holy Week. It is the final psalm in Book One of the Psalter and it prepares us for the depth of agony which is present in Book 2 of the Psalms (Psalms 42–59). Psalm 41 begins with a picture of blessedness: “How blessed is the one who considers the poor!” This is one of fifteen psalms that declares what it means to be “blessed” in the eyes of God. The psalm reminds us that as we help the poor and those who are suffering, we are coming closer to the heart of God. The first portion of Psalm 41 gives us a waterfall of verbs that describe how God is the one who delivers us, protects us, keeps us, does not give up on us, and sustains us. And that is just in verses 2 and 3! Then, in classic Psalm fashion (though rarely a feature of any modern hymns), the psalmist turns from the blessedness of God to recall the evil, treachery, and betrayal of his enemies. The psalmist recounts how our enemies plot our destruction, want us to die, break their promises, gossip and whisper about us, mock us when we are ill and lay on our bed dying. Then, when you think it cannot get any worse, the psalmist brings out the worst thing of all: betrayal. In verse 9 the psalmist says, “even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.”

It is this verse from Psalm 41 that is quoted by Jesus about Judas in John 13:18. In fact, this is the verse which introduces that whole discourse in John’s gospel about “one of you will betray me.” Why does Jesus draw us to this psalm? The verse about betrayal is followed by verse 10 which says, “God be gracious to me and raise me up that I may repay them!” This is meant to jolt you. The psalmist goes to the place of vengeance. But the gospel of Jesus Christ interrupts this. Rather than Jesus repaying His enemies and getting even with those who mocked and betrayed Him, He says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is the good news of the gospel! We are living in the interruption of God’s vengeance. We are living in the day of mercy and grace. In due course of time, Judgment Day will come on those who plot and scheme against God and His people. The book of Revelation makes that clear. But, we are in the great season of mercy and grace. This is not the time for vengeance. This is the time for reconciliation and preparing people for the blessed return of Christ. In this day of violence and division and hatred and betrayal, let us remember that we are now in the day of God’s favor. Our job is to mend the broken, heal the sick, give recovery of sight to the blind, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Holy Week is God’s plan to insert an offer of grace and mercy into the certainty of the judgment we deserved. Thanks be to God!

Rise Up, O Church of God – Have Done with Lesser Things!

Like many United Methodists around the world, the Council of Bishops’ decision to delay, yet again, the General Conference and consideration of the Protocol until August or September 2022 was met with great disappointment. COVID-19 is, of course, the cause of the multiple delays, first from May 2020 to August 2021 and now to 2022.

We all understand the unique challenges posed by a global pandemic and we have all extended quite a bit of grace and understanding over a certain level of disruption and lack of clarity. However, there are several things which strike me about this decision. First, it is quite revealing that our leadership could not find any “pivot” solution. Large, international organizations all over the world faced the same challenges and they found a whole array of creative solutions to keep making important decisions. There is no reason why the church could not find a way to address the Protocol in 2020 or certainly by 2021, as a single agenda item, since so much planning and transition across the denomination appears to hinge on this decision. Second, at a deeper level, I continue to be amazed at the hope being placed in the Protocol. Isn’t it amazing that the United Methodist Church, which is such a stickler for rules and procedures, has embraced the Protocol which was never authorized by any formal body? After every General Conference delay the inevitable calls begin to emerge asking the Council of Bishops to re-re-re affirm their commitment to the Protocol as if their affirmation would somehow give us comfort and assurance in the long wait. What are we waiting for? Except for a faithful few, since when has the Council of Bishops had any concern for the health and future of historic orthodoxy in the church? Is our hope in the Protocol? Is our salvation in keeping our building and land? Is our trust in some kind of “golden parachute” which we are being given?

This is the time for the Traditionalists to remember afresh what this whole struggle has been about over the last fifty years. It has not been about human sexuality. It has not been about the terms of separation. It has not been about the Trust Clause. These have served as some of the presenting issues. The struggle has been about nothing less than the recovery of biblical, apostolic Christianity. It is about a profound and fresh encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone is the Lord of the church, and who has promised us that he will build his church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. It is about a renewal of our Wesleyan message of holiness, sanctification, the re-directed heart, and the Spirit-filled life. It is about the unleashing of 10,000 new church plants across the world. It is about transformed lives and a message of hope in a culture of despair. It is about a fresh encounter with the Scriptures as the living Word of God. It is about the eternal verities of God’s revelation. It is about being set free from decades of confusion about the central, transformative realities of the gospel. It is about being set free from the wearisome pious platitudes of a kind of deistic, therapeutic, self-help moralizing which masquerades in our churches as the sermon. May the fire of God fall so profoundly on us that we cannot help but move forward now.

I still affirm that the Protocol remains the most viable path out of this morass into a more hopeful stream of recovery and restoration. But, what are we to do now that the wait is going on for years? We must live in the present as if we have already been set free for renewed mission in the world. After all, our hope is not in the Protocol. We do not stand trembling before the Council of Bishops waiting for them to tell us, yet again, they are still committed to showing us the door. We stand before the risen Christ! He has called us to “go and make disciples of all nations.” He has called us to re-evangelize a lost and broken nation. He has called us to renewed global partnerships to bring the gospel around the world. That is what all of the renewal movements have been about from the Confessing Movement to Good News to the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

This is the faithful future that we have been struggling to recapture. None of this has to wait until the vote on the Protocol. There are too many people who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ for us to be caught in some kind of endless Ground Hog Day type feedback loop. We cannot be immobilized by a decision whose largest support comes not from our brothers and sisters in Africa, who have stood with us shoulder-to-shoulder fighting for historic orthodoxy for decades, but from the very people who have opposed us. This newly emerging denomination has chosen the name Global Methodist Church. Yet, if the Traditionalists do not start acting now like a Methodist church that is truly global, truly historic, truly Wesleyan, truly a church, then the Traditionalists will have no right to such a name. We must live in the present as if we are already in the future. So, rise up, O Church of God, be done with lesser things; give heart and soul, and mind and strength to serve the King of Kings!

The Movement from Shouting to Silencing in Contemporary Culture

In his classic work After Virtue, the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued that while there is plenty of evidence of declining morals in Western society, the more profound challenge is the inability to even frame a moral argument.1 We no longer have sufficient shared assumptions as a culture to reach any kind of consensus on moral questions, whether based on a broad Judeo-Christian ethic found in Holy Scripture, or even Aristotle’s account of virtues and human flourishing in his Nicomachean Ethics. Therefore, with the loss of any foundation for moral argument, the only path for contemporary society is to find new ways to accommodate endless human preferences within an increasingly fractured society. This loss of a proper moral framework means that, despite the ongoing fervent use of moral language in various cultural arguments, there can be no proper moral resolution, or what MacIntyre calls a “terminus” point.2 MacIntyre cited various common moral debates within society, demonstrating that because there is no shared moral framework in these national conversations, they end up not being conversations at all, with pros and cons evaluated based on a shared moral framework. Rather, they end up as staged shouting matches where we just yell at one another. MacIntrye called this descent of ethics into shouting in the twenty-first century Western world “emotivism.” He described emotivism as the point you reach when “all morals are nothing but expressions of [personal] preference” or “expressions of attitudes or feelings.”3 Quite tragically, our deepest moral questions today are resolved not through moral argumentation on either side, or certainly not any appeal to an objective moral standard of truth, but through the exertion of my will over your will by means of power. Certainly, the last four years we have all experienced the rise of shouting at rather than talking with in our public discourse.

As tragic as this season is in our declining cultural climate, it seems that we are now descending below emotivism to something even more tragic. Have you noticed that shouting is now slipping into silencing? This has become known in popular discourse as the “cancel culture.” However, I think there is something deeper going on here that is not about any political party, but a deeper malaise which has descended upon much of the populace as a whole.

There are, of course, examples of this which are noted regularly in the news. One of the more notable recent examples can be seen in the double apology issued on February 10th by Washington Bishop Mariann Budde and Washington National Cathedral Dean Randy Hollerith. Why did they issue a rare, joint apology? Their offense was allowing popular evangelical pastor Max Lucado to preach during the cathedral’s Sunday service. Lucado is, of course, the pastor of a large church and the author of many popular books. The apology was not because of anything said by Lucado during what was purportedly an uplifting and inspiring sermon to all those who heard it. The apology was because of a position Lucado holds concerning homosexual practice and same-sex marriage. Budde and Hollerith both apologized for the pain their decision to even invite Max Lucado had caused to the LGBTQ community. The dean of the cathedral, Randy Hollerith, went on to say, “In my straight privilege I failed to see and fully understand the pain he [Lucado] has caused.” Now, this is an extraordinary statement. Lucado did not cause pain for anything he said at the cathedral, but simply because he holds a traditional view of marriage and he had stated that he believes that homosexual practice is a sin which could lead to the degradation of other social norms in the wider society. Just holding that position (however kindly and politely you hold it) is now inherently a form of “harm speech.” Therefore, all those holding this position may face silencing. Please follow my point here. It is not important I or you or anyone reading this blog necessarily agree with Lucado’s position on same-sex marriage. It is the silencing of Lucado for nothing more than adhering to a position that should concern us all. Bishop Mariann Budde and Cathedral Dean Randy Hollerith should have recognized that the greater harm was in stifling Lucado’s freedom to hold an opinion which has, in fact, been taught historically by the church. Lucado had not been invited to the National Cathedral to address the issue of homosexuality. In fact, all parties agree that he never breathed a word about it. He was invited to expose the National Cathedral to a major evangelical voice in North America today.

Let’s stop and remember how much has changed since 2017. In 2017 Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Church in New York, was chosen to be the recipient of the Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life. There was a huge outcry at Princeton because Keller belongs to the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), not the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA). The Presbyterian group Keller belongs to does not affirm the ordination of women. Again, it does not matter whether you agree with Keller’s position on women’s ordination or not. I happen to not. But, I still believe that Keller is a vital and important voice today and I would feel genuinely honored if my life could have even 10 percent of the positive impact Keller has had on the gospel in North America and around the world. When it was announced that Keller was to be the recipient of the Abraham Kuyper Prize, a debate broke out at Princeton whether to dis-invite Keller or not. I am, myself, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, so I know enough about the academic culture there to say that it was a far more serious debate than what happens at most universities today when social media drives a dis-invite within forty-eight hours of an invitation, followed by the standard tearful apology of the president of the university. To be fair, the Princeton Seminary debate did eventually erupt into a lot of shouting on social media, confirming MacIntyre’s point about emotivism. But, beneath that there was still a genuine reticence to silence Keller, even though the overwhelming majority of Princeton Seminary students disagree with Keller and the PCA stance regarding women’s ordination. They realized that Keller was not coming to address that issue and the award was about the whole of his life’s positive impact. The compromise finally reached by Princeton Seminary was to allow Keller to speak, but to withhold the Abraham Kuyper award from him. It was, of course, a sad and tragic compromise, since he deserved both the award and the speaking platform, but at least they felt it important that Keller’s voice not be silenced, even though they disagreed with his stance on women’s ordination. I commend them for this.

Let’s stop and remember how much has changed since 1978. That was the year that the ACLU defended a neo-Nazi group that wanted to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie, where many Holocaust survivors lived. The ACLU determined that free speech was so important that they must stand by the neo-Nazi group even though they were repulsed by the group’s message and everything they stood for. This would be shocking today. But, it was not unusual at the time because it was based on the famous line from the “Friends of Voltaire,” which summarized Voltaire’s view on free speech, saying, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The unexpected support from the ACLU led to an actual conversation about the wisdom of marching in that neighborhood, and the group decided to not march through that neighborhood.

I have bemoaned the emotivism that has allowed social media to be used as a platform for people to shout at one another and the accompanying loss of any moral framework. However, we seem to be entering a more dangerous phase where we are robbing people of their free speech. Despite some of the negative chatter around free speech today, it remains one of the cherished gems of our democracy that empowers us all. It is no mistake that “freedom of speech” is enshrined as the first amendment to the Constitution and the first of the enumerated Bill of Rights. Even though there are deep divisions in the church and the wider culture on a range of issues which may place me in disagreement with a range of people and positions, I want to defend the right of those who disagree to make their case without fear of harm. So, even if someone is an atheist, or wealthy, or chooses to change their gender, or kneels or refuses to kneel at a football game, and the list could go on and on, they are still persons created in the image of God who must never be dehumanized, flattened, or silenced. Indeed, civil discourse is a Christian virtue (e.g. Acts 17:17; 19:9). Our society, and even the church, is allowing people like Keller and Lucado, who are both nuanced, three-dimensional people with deep reflections on ten thousand issues, to be reduced to a single issue which happens to disagree with the current climate of cultural consciousness. This should be a concern for every American, regardless of your generation, your political party, or your religious affiliation.

1. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd edition (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 2007).

2. Ibid., 6.

3. Ibid., 12. The early chapters of MacIntyre’s book is dedicated to demonstrating the flaws in emotivism as a philosophical theory to provide moral guidance in a society. For example, in the early twentieth century many people felt that racism was morally justified and it required a proper moral argument to convince the wider society that it was “right” to at least begin to dismantle the moral scourge of racism. The resurgence of racism in our own time reveals the deeper tragedy that the moral argument upon which the fight against racism was waged has become eroded and there is no longer a sufficient moral framework for addressing an issue as important as racism.

Embracing the Checkmate in Our Fifty-Year Struggle in the United Methodist Church

Now that 2021 has finally arrived, we can begin to turn our attention, once again, to the momentous season which will likely unfold in 2021 in the United Methodist Church. This year will almost certainly be the year that the United Methodist denomination agrees to some kind of separation agreement, known as the Protocol. Millions of United Methodist Church members from across all conferences around the world will exit the denomination over the next few years to join new or existing movements. After all is said and done, the Protocol is achieving what fourteen consecutive General Conference votes (1972 to present) could not; namely, finding some way to get the traditionalists to exit the denomination. It has been a bit like a chess match. The traditionalists and the progressives have been playing a game of ecclesial chess for fifty years, each trying to out-maneuver the other and reach a checkmate where the opposing side would lay down the fight, admit defeat, and move on to other challenges we face as a denomination. In 2019, the traditionalists thought they had achieved a final and decisive resolution. Four hundred sixty-one voted yes for the Traditional Plan (56.22%), whereas only 359 voted no (43.78%). This, one must remember, was at a specially called General Conference dedicated to finally resolving our dispute. However, the progressives refused to accept the outcome of the vote. The vote did not matter. The bottom line was that the outcome was not the one many of our episcopal leaders hoped for, so it was not accepted.

Over the next year, the Protocol was formed and within a few months a new agreement was reached, which endorses—surprise, surprise—the orthodox exiting the denomination and the progressives being given the United Methodist Church. Back to the chess analogy: despite fourteen straight General Conference votes on the matter of human sexuality, we are now finding ourselves checkmated and shown the door. Doctor Tom Berlin, as it turned out, was prophetic when he declared at the 2019 General Conference that those who hold to the traditional view were like a “virus” which must be expelled from the body. Doctor Berlin could not have known then that an actual virus was about to be unleashed on the world. But he did make it crystal clear to the traditionalists that the only hope for the survival of orthodoxy was for us to be expelled from the body of United Methodism. In short, our future lies in our embracing the checkmate.

This is where the gospel does its greatest work. It is only by embracing the loss of the United Methodist Church that we can receive something reborn. It is only by embracing the checkmate that we can experience a resurrection; a new movement which fully embodies historic faith, Wesleyan identity, and biblical integrity. This is the opportunity which is before us in 2021. The year 2021 is the year we turn from decades of trying to save the United Methodist church to the even more daunting challenge of building a completely new Wesleyan movement. We are so familiar with the old struggles, it will likely be years before we fully realize the new struggles that we will need to face with equal resolve, faith, and courage. But, this is the year when the new denomination will be born. Our struggle has never been about human sexuality. Our struggle has never been about the precise language in the Book of Discipline. Those have only served as the presenting problem. Our struggles have always been about Christology (Who is Jesus Christ?), soteriology (Do we have a saving message for a lost world?), and divine revelation (Is the Bible divinely inspired, the message of which is binding on the very identity, doctrine, and preaching of the church?). Hopefully, over the next decade, millions of former United Methodists will join with millions of newly justified and Spirit-filled Christians who have no background with the United Methodist Church or any knowledge of these struggles, to together focus on the spiritual renewal of our nation and the world. There is a huge storm about to break over not just the “people called Methodists” but the “people called Christian” in this nation. We must prepare for the full onslaught of the world’s antipathy toward Jesus Christ and the Christian gospel, and the faithful remnant (in whatever denomination they may belong to) are always in the crosshairs. We will not have much time to come together and prepare for the coming assault on all that we hold dear. So, let’s embrace the checkmate, thanking God for all that we have learned in these many years of struggle and prepare for the real struggle that is before us as the people of God. It will be a struggle framed by the nature of truth, the Christian view of the body/human personhood, and the limits of religious liberty. It will require full surrender and sanctification before God if we are to remain faithful in this hour.

Martin Luther famously said that “the Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” In the same way, the time for user friendly Christianity with simplistic slogans, cheap grace, and no demands is passed. We must redouble our efforts to build strong, faithful Christians. During the Diocletian persecution (303–311 AD) the Christians who were prepared to compromise their faith rather than be thrown to the lions would say, “It’s only a pinch of incense . . . nothing worth dying for.” But the pinch of incense was the acknowledgment that Caesar was Lord, rather than Jesus. The whole future of the church, quite frankly, came down to a pinch of incense. 2021 must be the year when we remind our faithful flocks afresh of this history as we prepare for what lies ahead.

The Glide Memorial Story

The Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco was the largest Methodist Church in the California-Nevada Conference. From 1964 to 2000, the church was led by Rev. Cecil Williams, who removed the cross from the sanctuary, stopped all celebrations of the Eucharist, and baptized people not in the name of the triune God, but in the “name of the people.” The church was reoriented to become a multi-faith center to provide assistance to the needy and to support various progressive causes. One of the most notorious moments in the life of the church was in January 1977 when Glide Memorial awarded Jim Jones the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award. Jim Jones would later become a household name after he led a mass suicide of 918 members of his church (including 304 children) in Jonestown, Guyana. It is also noteworthy that Rev. Karen Oliveto, the first lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church, was the pastor of Glide Memorial before she became the bishop of the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Conferences of the United Methodist Church in 2016. Glide Memorial sought to leave the United Methodist Church in 2018 and would not accept various attempts for United Methodist pastors to be appointed. The last several years have been tied up in a legal battle over the substantial Glide Trust and the building. It has now been resolved that the Glide Trust will be given to the California-Nevada Annual Conference to support the work of the United Methodist Church.

But, it is important that we remember the story behind this story. In other words, it is important for those who have been following this story in recent years to remember the original intention and founding of the Glide Memorial Church. In 1929, J. C. McPheeters published a book titled Sons of God, which was read by Lizzie Glide and inspired her to use her late husband’s wealth (beef and stock business) for the expansion of the kingdom of God. Her dream was to create an evangelical, evangelistic center in the heart of the city. It included a preaching hall, six-story apartment complex, and a restaurant. The preaching hall eventually became the sanctuary of Glide Memorial and J. C. McPheeters became the founding pastor. Over the next eighteen years, countless people were served through his ministry and the church grew to more than 3,600 members! Sixty percent of the members came on first time profession of faith. One of those who came to Christ was a young sailor named Ed Robb Jr., who would go on to be a great Methodist evangelist and start AFTE, a fund used to support doctoral students who are committed to evangelical faith. Ed Robb Jr.’s son, Ed Rob III, is currently the founder and senior pastor of The Woodlands United Methodist Church north of Houston.

Elizabeth Glide was also friends with H. C. Morrison, the founder of Asbury Theological Seminary. She encouraged J. C. McPheeters to invite him to preach at Glide Memorial. H. C. Morrison went to San Francisco on five occasions and preached at Glide Memorial. It was there that J. C. McPheeters first met H. C. Morrison. H. C. Morrison eventually invited J. C. Mcpheeters to become the editor of the Herald magazine, which is still the official magazine of Asbury Theological Seminary. Their relationship grew so strong that eventually H. C. Morrison (and the Board of Trustees) invited J. C. McPheeters to become the successor to H. C. Morrison by becoming the second president of Asbury Theological Seminary. McPheeters would serve as president at Asbury from 1942–1962. For six of those years, McPheeters continued to serve as senior pastor of Glide Memorial as well as president of Asbury Seminary! This background is important because it underscores the importance of remembering donor intent. In donor relations is it vital that any recipient of a gift honor the original purpose of the gift. The purpose of the Glide Trust was to create an evangelistic training center in the heart of San Francisco. Lizzie Glide was deeply committed to historic faith and was at the heart of the holiness movement. May we never forget her heart and how she intended for her money to be used. Now that the United Methodist Church has regained control of most of the Glide Trust, may they remember afresh the purpose for which that money was originally given.

Epiphany Is Here!

Epiphany is January 6th. It is one of the few fixed days in the life of the church (along with Christmas). It always falls on January 6th. Epiphany doesn’t receive quite the attention as other seasons do, like Lent or Advent, so perhaps this is a good time to pause and reflect on the meaning of the season of Epiphany. The word epiphany is a Greek word meaning “manifestation” and refers to the public manifestation of Jesus to the world when he begins his public ministry. This is the season where we mark all of the great acts of his public ministry, beginning with his baptism and continuing through to the transfiguration. The baptism of Jesus and the transfiguration of Jesus are like bookends, accentuating the truth that Jesus Christ is the pivotal event—the pivotal person—in the history of the world.

His baptism is the marker that this man, standing in the Jordan River, is the one true Israelite, who alone embodies righteousness and who alone has fulfilled the Law. You will recall that God began by electing Israel out of all the nations of the world. However, Israel proved unfaithful and fell into idolatry and unbelief. So God raised up a remnant within Israel who were called to be faithful and to keep the covenant. But they, too, were disobedient and failed to keep the covenant. It all came down to one Israelite, Jesus Christ, who was the spotless Lamb of God.

His transfiguration is the marker at the end of his ministry when Jesus fulfills all the hopes and expectations of the old covenant. Moses and Elijah appear at the transfiguration as the symbolic head of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah), solidifying Jesus as the fulfillment of all the expectations and hopes of the ages.

What a great reminder to us as we start 2021, which promises to be one of the most disruptive years of our lives. We are facing an important political shift from a Trumpian version of Republicanism to a more socialistic version of the Democratic party. 2021 will bring us the transition from the tragedy of COVID-19 to the post-pandemic long-term impact of the social, economic, and psychological toll of the pandemic, which we are only beginning to understand. 2021 will also be the year that the United Methodist Church agrees to some form of a separation agreement.

Whatever we face in 2021 and beyond, let us not forget that sole figure standing in the Jordan River. The one who will someday be transfigured. The one who will someday be crucified. The one who will someday rise, ascend, and be seated at the right hand of the Father to judge the world. The one “desire of all nations.” Let us keep our eyes fixed on him. He is the Light of the World. That is the message of Epiphany.

The Incarnation and the Three Advents of Jesus Christ

One of my favorite Christmas hymns is by Charles Wesley titled, “Glory Be to God on High.” It is filled with the rich imagery and phrases that are characteristic of Wesley’s great hymnology: “He sojourns in this veil of tears,” “God the invisible appears,” and “Beings source begins to be.” Yes, this is the season we recall the great mystery of the incarnation. The world is quick to sentimentalize the whole message of Christmas, making it about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” or “Jack Frost nipping at your nose” rather than the mystery of the incarnation—God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ.

Let us not forget that this is the season of the church year when we remember and celebrate the real, bodily incarnation of Jesus Christ. There are many dimensions of this Advent. It certainly refers to the coming of the second person of the Trinity as the Son of God. He comes into the lowly stable of Bethlehem as the exalted Son of Man, prepared to “raise the sons of earth” to their right status before God. It also refers to the Second Advent when Jesus Christ as the “Son of God and Son of Man” returns: 1) to receive those whom He has called, 2) to judge the world and set all things right, and, finally, 3) to usher in the consummation of the new creation.

However, as we all know, there is a big gap in time and space between the first and second Advents of Jesus Christ. God, in His mercy, has given to us a large redemptive space into which the church is to live out the future realities of the inbreaking kingdom into the present age. We are to be outposts of the new creation in Adam’s world. This happens in ten thousand small ways in tiny corners of the world as God—through His church—bears witness to His righteous rule and reign.

It is into such a world that we all are called to live as children of the light, bearing witness to that True Light which has come—and is coming—into the world. This is, of course, the third way the Advent of Jesus Christ happens in our world. The Advent of Jesus is not isolated to two points in history, the first Christmas and the second coming, but is an unfolding reality whenever the kingdom of Jesus Christ breaks in afresh to a new people.

Perhaps the best way to celebrate Christmas is not merely to look back on the first Christmas, or to look forward to the second coming, but look out into the world and discover new ways in which Jesus Christ can be presented or, in some cases, be re-presented, to the world. The witness of every church should be a little reenactment of the incarnation in seed form. These reenactments are only possible since God in Jesus Christ has set the stage and He remains the central player in this divine drama.

Our job is not simply to wait for the second coming, but to live out his first coming in the present age in countless ways until Jesus returns. If we knew that Jesus were coming back tomorrow, we should still get up and go to our places of work and study because we want to make sure that whenever He does return He finds us not idle, but in the saddle doing the works of Jesus each and every day.

For the Body: A New Resource by Timothy Tennent

Between September 5, 1979, and November 28, 1984, late Pope John Paul II preached a five-­year series of weekly homilies on the theology of the body, which constitutes the landmark exposition of this theme. As wonderful as this resource is, it is theologically nuanced and not easily accessible to ordinary Christians who are facing these struggles in their families or workplaces. Christopher West promoted John Paul II’s teachings to a wider audience through his books Theology of the Body Explained, Theology of the Body for Beginners, and more recently in Our Bodies Tell God’s Story. However, these books stand as an exception to the rule. Most popular Christian books focus on a Christian response to same-­sex marriage or offer advice on building positive marriages, but they have not been as robust in demonstrating how all of these issues point to a single theological problem that remains largely unaddressed. That single problem is that we do not have a coherent theology of the body.

In this book, I seek to demonstrate how a positive vision of the body that arises out of Scripture and the consensus of Christian teaching gives us a positive theological vision and, hopefully, a way forward for addressing the whole range of issues the church is facing today.

What the Church Has Believed, Taught, and Confessed

Traditionally, church doctrine referred to what was believed, taught, and confessed. However, the meaning of these terms has been largely lost as the church has become increasingly disconnected from its own history. Populist notions of Christianity must always be informed by the rich heritage we received from the New Testament witness and from those who have gone before us. The term believed did not simply refer to things you know in your head or trust in your heart; believed referred to all the ways faith extended itself bodily, whether through worship, service, or the morality of our own life and witness in the world. The word taught did not simply refer to the content of material taught in a new members class; it referred to the whole structure of Christian teaching, preaching, and proclamation that would resonate with biblical, apostolic faith. The word confessed referred to far more than a document such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed; it also referred to the church’s role in defending the faith against attacks, protecting the church from false teachings, and maintaining our unity with the historic faith (see Jaroslav Pelikan, A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600) [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971], 2–5).

This book seeks to address a doctrinal neglect in the church that has negatively influenced what is being believed, taught, and confessed. That problem has many manifestations, but the root problem is a deficient theology of the body. This is not some odd doctrine that dwells only in seminary classrooms or academic lectures but one that lies at the heart of many of the most pressing moral, cultural, and ecclesiastical issues of our day.

It is common today to hear of someone who has for most of their lives held to a traditional view of marriage, embark upon a journey that eventually led them to a new view concerning the definition of marriage or understanding of gender. These are often very powerful and moving stories. These stories normally involve getting to know someone personally who has struggled with their gender, or a happy lesbian couple who may have recently joined the church, and so forth. Like many who are reading this book, I have listened to these stories and reflected on them. But as I faced all of these new questions and issues, I also have been on a journey. I have spoken with friends, I have read books, I have studied Scriptures in a new way, and I have listened both to those who struggle with these issues and to the church throughout the ages, trying to better understand these issues. This book reflects some of my journey.

This excerpt is taken from the introduction of Timothy Tennent’s new book, For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body. Video companion and study guide forthcoming January, 2021.

This book is suitable for: 1) Pastors leading communities 2) Individuals seeking deeper study 3) Student ministers. In these pages readers will: 1) Understand why our bodies matter on a host of issues 2) Discover a positive vision for human sexuality 3) Be equipped to engage culture from a positive posture.

The human body is an amazing gift, yet today, many people downplay its importance and fail to understand what Christianity teaches about our bodies and their God-given purposes. We misunderstand how the body was designed, its role in relating to others, and lack awareness of the dangers of objectifying the body, divorcing it from its intended purpose.

In For the Body, author Timothy Tennent looks at what it means to be created in the image of God and how our bodies serve as icons that illuminate God’s purposes. Tennent examines topics like marriage, family, singleness, and friendship, and he looks at how the human body has been objectified in art and media today. He also offers a framework for discipling people today in a Christian theology of the body.

Is Confidence in Sola Fide Dropping or Is the Wesleyan Tide Rising?

I recently read an article with the following question as a title: “Are We Justified by Faith Alone?” The question in the title was asked in this precise form because it was intended to resonate with one of the great themes of the sixteenth-century Reformation: sola fide (faith alone!). The meaning is that we are justified by faith alone in Christ and no amount of good works can accomplish one’s justification before God. Trust me, whenever I hear any of the five great solas of the Reformation—faith alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone, grace alone, glory of God alone—I want to shout Amen and Hallelujah.

Nevertheless, I wonder if the article may have missed something. The article was written in response to a Lifeway and Ligonier Ministries survey as a part of their State of Theology Project. The survey found that only 84 percent of evangelicals agree with the following statement: “God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works but only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ.” Only two years ago, the article points out, 91 percent of evangelicals agreed with the same statement. The author laments this slippage from and writes the following summary of his anguish: “This shows that there has been an alarming decrease in the percentage of evangelicals who express clear views on how sinful man can be justified before God.” But, does this conclusion necessarily follow the results of the survey? Let’s just say, I have doubts. The question posed never uses the word justification. The question asked about whether God “counting a person as righteous” is related to “one’s works” or only “one’s faith.” If the question had been posed, Is a person justified only by one’s faith, or is it also by one’s works? then I would share the author’s concern about the slipping percentage, because when framed this way the question is more narrowly focused on what it means to be justified before God. That is not what the question actually asked. Therefore, to conclude that this slippage represents an “alarming decrease” in “how sinful man can be justified” is not warranted.

So, what is the difference between the question and the interpretation of the response? The difference is bound up with the biblical view of salvation. To put it bluntly and plainly, biblical salvation is about more than justification. Salvation involves our salvation by faith alone in the completed work of Jesus Christ, but it also involves our sanctification which, through the work of the Holy Spirit, makes us holy and actually produces fruit in us. In other words, as much as we laud the good news of alien righteousness (i.e., that our righteousness does not belong to us, but to Jesus Christ alone), no biblical Christian believes that this is the only thing we teach about righteousness. Yes, we are condemned sinners who flee to the cross with no hope in ourselves apart from Christ. Yet, and this is the point, once we flee to the cross, God begins a good work in us to conform us to the life of Christ and to make us holy.

In other words, sanctification is about making us holy—in our thoughts, our actions, or dispositions, our heart orientation. This process will not be complete until we come to yet another stage of salvation, namely, glorification when we will be made like Christ and fully conformed to his glorious image in the final Eschaton. But, the point is this: When God looks upon us who are on this side of the cross he should definitely see two forms of righteousness—the righteousness of Jesus Christ and the emerging righteousness of the increasingly sanctified believer. John Wesley’s theology was built around the confidence that salvation must involve both the work of Jesus Christ who alone justifies and the work of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies. Even Martin Luther’s theology of righteousness is built around the distinction between the coram deo (passive righteousness before God) and the corum mundo (active righteousness in the world).

Thus, back to the original question, When God looks at us should he not see righteousness that is not merely passive righteousness received from Christ, but also active righteousness that is based on the work of the Holy Spirit which joyfully and daily includes our wills and our actions? Thus, the dropping percentage by evangelicals is likely not a sign of the loss of sola fide and the sole centrality of Jesus Christ in justifying us, but, rather, a growing percentage of evangelicals who realize that when God looks upon us, he had better see both kinds of righteousness. As someone once humorously put it, as a play on the famous “Just as I Am” hymn: “God loves you just as you am, but he don’t want you to stay the way you am!” What we are experiencing among evangelicals is not the alarming loss of the Reformation message, but the growing realization that in an increasingly post-Christian world, not only must the world see our transformed lives, but God had better see it too!

My 2020 Opening Convocation Address (Part IV): From Religious Service Provider to Agent of Awakening

Read Part I of my convocation address here.
Read Part II of my convocation address here.
Read Part III of my convocation address here.

Paradigm Shift #3: Moving from Being a Religious Service Provider to an Agent of Awakening

The third storm, the COVID-19 pandemic, has disrupted one of the key features of Christian, and, indeed, human identity; namely, the life-giving power of gathered, human community reflecting the very nature of the communal nature of our triune God. On the one hand, we fully understand and embrace that the wearing of masks and keeping social distance is an expression of compassion for one another, and, in particular, our more vulnerable citizens as well as the well-being of our health care workers who serve on the front lines in this pandemic. Let me repeat, we affirm and resonate with this message. But, it is not the only message that Christians need to hear. Safety is a good value, but, for the Christian, it is not the ultimate value for us or, in our view, for a healthy society.

A culture that takes down diving boards from swimming pools because someone might get hurt is also a culture that will never send a man or woman to the moon. A culture that shines ultra-violet light on the bedsheets of 5-star hotels to show us what is lurking there is a culture that has lost touch with the real sufferings of this world. The church must get its hands dirty in the world. As I tell our new students every year, we are called to be street lights, not sanctuary lights. Millions around the world, and in our own land, struggle against what African theologian Akintude Akinade has called the “multi-headed Hydra” of poverty, illiteracy, ethnic tensions, colonialism, dictatorship, illness, disenfranchisement, and suffering. As a Christian, if my wife and I were to accept the prevailing culture’s hierarchy of values we would never have sent our daughter to live among the Alagwa in central Tanzania. She is five hours from any health care and even if she managed to get there, the clinic often has no attending staff and only meager medical supplies. It’s just too risky to bring the gospel to an unreached people’s group. As Christians we must understand that our culture is driven to make safety the highest good precisely because of their loss of the Eschaton and any eternal hope beyond the grave. If all you have is this life and the farthest extent of your vision is ninety years, then it is an expression of perfect cultural logic to end up where we are today as a society.

But our vision goes beyond the grave. Death has been defeated. We are an eschatological people. The early church understood, even in the face of immense dangers, that they stood in a sacred space, which is Jesus Christ. When Jesus saw the leper, he did not step back in fear, though it was the most infectious and transmittable disease of his day. He stepped forward, and touched the leper. COVID-19 is a call for us to reclaim the power of the gospel . . . not just the doctrines of it, but the spirit of it—to reoccupy that sacred space as we walk in confidence through the world, even as we wear masks and keep social distance. Fear is not a Christian virtue. We are not a people of fear, but of joy. For us, joy is an act of corporate resistance against despair. We walk through a COVID-19 world knowing that Jesus has the final word. He has defeated death, with all of its signatures: fear, disease, poverty, racism, etc. The world is a dangerous, risky place where we as Christians must learn again to walk into daily trusting the providence of God.

COVID-19 is, as noted earlier, a strangely wrapped gift of disruptive grace. It could be the very change agent to move us toward several important changes in how we understand ecclesiology. First, we should accept as a gift that we need to move from facility-focused ministry models to smaller, community-based churches. For too long we have nurtured and even promoted the idea of Christians commuting out of their own communities to attend large churches, many of whom have no meaningful connection to the communities they are in. For too long we have touted the size of a church as a measure of its health: the church with the most programs to meet our needs wins. However, what if COVID-19, racial unrest, and economic fragility call us to move toward smaller, community-based churches that serve as the primary agent of healing for the communities they are in? Second, what if COVID-19 breaks us from a Sunday-based ministry and gives way to a full-week engagement of the church in the world? Sunday morning gatherings for worship are wonderful, but we are not the church if our faith only finds a home one day a week. The church has always thrived the most when its members saw themselves as the church as they walked through the whole week in all of their various contexts. We must recapture our public witness, not just our private faith. Third, COVID-19 could have a transformative impact on how we understand seminary education. We have long lived and operated on the university model, which functions as a separate institution of learning that often is insulated from the churches we are pledged to serve. One of the most exciting ways Asbury is meeting this challenge is the launch of Asbury Global, which brings together our hybrid learning model, our online education, and our contextual sites that meet in local churches. It is not intended to replace our vibrant residential model, which emphasizes embodied communities of learning, but it supplements it by the whole of Asbury being reminded that we exist to serve the church and the church is a vital partner in the future of theological education.

I want to close with a story from my own family. My sixth great-grandfather was William Tennent. He was born in Scotland in 1673, went to the University of Edinburgh, as I later did, and migrated to the new world in 1718. In 1727 he founded a theological college known as the Log College, which provided pastors for the First Great Awakening (1730–1740). The Log College eventually became renamed the College of New Jersey and finally it was relocated in the first town that each merchant in the town would put up twenty dollars to support the university. A little town name Princeton rose to the challenge, and the rest is history.

William Tennent’s children all became part of what was known at that time as the New Lights, as opposed to the Old Lights. These were Great Awakening preachers and they were denouncing religious formalism, promoting revival, conversion experiences, direct experience with God, and pietism. These, of course, are themes we are familiar in the ministry of John Wesley, another one of the great streams of the Great Awakening.

William Tennent Jr. (my fifth great-grandfather) had just graduated from the Log College and was preparing to take his ordination exams. In those days, it was a deeply classical training and he was conversing in Latin with his theological tutor when suddenly, with a big heave and cry, he collapsed to the ground and died, though he was only twenty-six years old. In the eighteenth century there were four main ways to determine if someone was dead, and you are probably familiar with all four of these: pulse, death pallor, death dew, and rigor mortis.

William Tennent Jr. experienced all of this and so he was pronounced dead and the funeral was set for the next day. Later that day, another doctor came and examined the body and thought he felt a slight warmth underneath his armpits, so he called in another doctor. The other doctor examined him and couldn’t feel any warmth at all. This was a time before such things as EKGs, so he used the methods he had: no pulse, death pallor, stiff as a board . . . again, declared dead for the second time. The next day was the day of the funeral. People gathered for the funeral and just minutes before they were going to close the casket and bring him out for burial, another doctor said he wanted to examine him again. William Sr. (his father) and Gilbert (his brother) didn’t want to allow for it, because everyone had already gathered for the funeral and William Jr. had now been officially declared dead by two different doctors. But, there was a fifth test that was done—that was to shine a very bright light into someone’s eyes and see if their pupils restricted. They did this and the pupils remained dilated, but he saw at the last minute a little shimmer of the eye, and for just a second William Tennent’s body shivered, then fell dead again. They called off the funeral, took him out of the casket, wrapped the body in warm towels, and eventually he came to. He could not speak. He had to learn everything all over again over the next two years, though his Latin came back before his English. I am alive this morning because William Tennent woke up! Praise God. I was less than ten to fifteen minutes from not existing! If William Tennent Jr. had not woken up, I would not be here today, because he went on to get married, have a family (including my fourth great-grandfather), and serve a church for the next forty-three years until his actual death. I am here this morning five generations later because William Tennent Jr. woke up.

“Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you”

The culture has declared the church dead and has already called for our funeral service, but the God of resurrection is still at work. The culture is ready to close the casket on the church and declare that the Christian gospel is irrelevant to the needs of this world, but the gospel remains the power of God unto salvation and our God is still on the throne! The culture sees the church not as the solution to the culture’s dilemma, but part of the problem, but Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!” This is our great hope. God is not finished with us and He has called us into the world, with all of its dangers and frightening problems that all seem unsurmountable. Be the agent of healing for our communities. Never forget the distinctive voice of God’s revelation to us. And, remember, even though Nebuchadnezzar heats up his furnace seven times hotter, God still has his Meshacks, Shadracks, and Abenegos who will not bow to the idols of this world. So, wake up, O church, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you! Get out of your caskets and get into the world—that’s why Asbury Seminary exists. Let us awaken to a new great awakening! Amen.