Archive for ‘Controversy’


NPR on the Protestant Reformation

Today marks the 499th anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg, sparking what is known now as the Protestant Reformation.  Recently, I listened to a piece on NPR trying to explain the Reformation and reporting on recent ecumenical efforts to see Protestants and Catholics come back together.

Pope Francis now praises Martin Luther as an “intelligent man” who rightly protested many abuses at the time.  He maintains that we have much in common and should work together on social issues like caring for the poor, immigration, and persecution of Christians.

However, NPR reported, there are three remaining areas of doctrinal division:

(1) The question of the universal church and papal primacy

(2) The priesthood, which includes women in the Lutheran Church

(3) The nature of the Eucharist or Holy Communion

Why do we continue to miss the point?  Is it simply ignorance?  Or is there a willful denial?  Until people recognize that the main issue in Luther’s theology… in fact the biggest question in all of life is – How can I be right before a holy God? – then they cannot understand the Reformation and there cannot be unity between true Protestants and Catholics.


What I Said Before the Prayer Time During our Service Today

My family and I were gone all this last week on vacation, trying to be cut off from the world, but it was impossible not to hear about the latest flare up of the disease of racial injustice that plagues our society.  It was a uniquely eventful week.  And so I wanted to take some time to briefly address this and give some guidance on how we should respond.

What can we do?  Facebook posts can only do so much.  We must do more.  But we can’t change Dallas or Baton Rouge or Falcon Heights or our whole nation.  So what can we do?

We can pray.  And that is what we are about to do together in just a moment.  We can go to the only One who can ultimately help.  And he hears us.

In our prayers we can lament, grieve to God, pour out our sadness, mourn.  Beg him to move.

And in our prayers we can repent.  If we have hatred and unrighteous anger, we can confess that.  If we don’t care, we can confess our apathy, confess our lack of love for the Other and ask God to change us.  We can ask for forgiveness for ways that we have been complicit in the problem through sins of commission and/or omission, and ask God to give us the right heart.

And then in addition to praying, we can think biblically about these matters.  We must work hard to get the right biblical categories in our minds for how to approach matters of race and institutional sin.  We can’t let the world define our terms and shape our hearts and set our agendas, but the Word.

The Bible tells us that we all have different callings in the world.

Some of you may be called to contribute to the righting of wrongs through political or legal action – organizing, policy making, lobbying…

Some of you may be called to law enforcement in some way.  We’ve had a member of our church become a cop and we need more good cops who truly serve and protect.

Some of you may be called to educational reform.  We’ve had members working in CPS, which is a less than cushy school district, in order to seek the welfare of a city ravaged by racial inequalities.

Some of you may be called to economic investment.  We need more real jobs in neighborhoods that are racially segregated.  We need more felon-friendly jobs, so people have a way out.  This requires entrepreneurial risk and creative thinking from those who have capital.

There are tons of different ways to address the systemic and complicated issues that we’ve been reminded of again this week.  Some of you are called to do something about the problem in some of these ways.

But let me remind you what all of us are without a doubt called to do.  Every Christian is called to give him or herself to the local church.  That is the most important thing we can do in response to these events.  Government is not where our hope finally lies.  Education, the economy… God can work through those institutions in a general way, but the clearest location of God’s special, redeeming work in the world is the church.  Here is where God is reconciling people to himself and to each other for ever.  The church is a foretaste and preview of the coming New Creation where every tribe, language, and nation is gathered around the throne of God.

As we drove back into our neighborhood last night, after spending a week in parts of the country that are by and large oblivious to these sad realities, I was reminded of how exciting it is to be the church here in the UIC Area, with such diversity yet disparity.  What a place to do the long-term work of preaching the gospel and making disciples and living sacrificially for others.  It’s all right here within a few blocks of where we sit right now.  It’s all right here.  Let’s not miss it.

So with all the national news swirling that highlights the problems, let’s recommit ourselves to this specific church and our mission to this neighborhood.  What can we do?  Let’s be the church, be the people of God assembled under the Word of God, demonstrating to the world the supernatural power of the gospel to make enemies of God adopted sons and daughters of God and true brothers and sisters to each other through the cross.  Let’s help this body continue to reflect God’s kaleidoscopic kingdom.  Let’s dig in deeper to each other’s lives, loving one another deeply from the heart and seeking to bring our neighbors in on that.  We can, and must, all do at least this.


Sweet Exchange

Buried in a footnote in an unrelated book is one of the best to-the-point-refutations of N.T. Wright’s objection to the glorious truth that God imputes to the believer the righteousness of Christ –

Theologians and exegetes often discuss the Protestant idea of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in the terms of the law court, since the dikaios word group is a legal/judicial one.  Yet the law-court metaphor is just that – a metaphor that can help with certain aspects of imputation but does not explain the theological concept entirely.  N.T. Wright’s oft-quoted critique of imputation falls short precisely because he treats the metaphor, as it were, univocally.  He writes, ‘Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom’; in What Saint Paul Really Said (Oxford: Lion Book, 1997), 98.  Well, sure, that’s very clever-sounding, but he’s not really critiquing imputation here.  Imputation is a judicial idea, yes, but also a covenantal one.  Entering into certain kinds of covenants involves my identity and all that I am, such that all that’s mine becomes yours and all that’s yours becomes mine.  When I married my wife, for instance, my student loan debt actually became hers, and her Honda Civic actually became mine.  Neither the Honda nor the debt floated across the courtroom.  Still, there really was this ‘sweet exchange,’ at least from my perspective.  So it is with the sweet exchange of Christ’s righteousness and my sin.  By giving himself to his people in the new covenant, what he possesses becomes ours, and what’s ours becomes his.  In that sense, Wright is correct to point to the covenantal aspects of God’s righteousness in Christ.  I even appreciate his point in the same chapter of this critique that the book of Romans, most fundamentally, presents us not with the realities of the law court but with a ‘theology of love’ (p. 110).  Yet somehow he misses the fact that the shared identity of biblical covenants involves exchanging not just obligations but debts and blessings.  Somehow he misses the fact that the exchange of sin and righteousness between Christ and sinner – these legal or judicial realities – is also a covenantal reality, and a nuptial one, at that.

Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 110 fn. 62.


Faith and Works

From Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), xvii:

Faith is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1). It kills the old Adam and makes altogether different people, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Spirit.

Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. And so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises, it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them.

He who does not these works is a faithless man. He gropes and looks about after faith and good works and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though he talks and talks, with many words about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures.

And this is the work of the Holy Spirit in faith. Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace.

And thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire.


We Crave Something Beyond Our Biology

I don’t usually list Andy Stanley as one of my theological heroes or ministry role models, but his recent defense of monogamy in TIME magazine is brilliant:

Cassette tapes are obsolete. Monogamy is more like an endangered species. Rare. Valuable. Something to be fed and protected. Perhaps an armed guard should be assigned to every monogamous couple to ward off poachers. Perhaps not.

The value a culture places on monogamy determines the welfare of its women and children. Women and children do not fare well in societies that embrace polygamy or promiscuity. In the majority of cases, sexual freedom undermines the financial freedom of women. Sexual freedom eventually undermines the financial and emotional security of children.

If we are only biology, none of the above really matters. All’s well that ends with the survival of the species. If we are only biology, monogamy was probably a flawed concept from the start. But very few of us live as if we are only biology. I’m not sure it’s possible. We constantly refer to “our bodies”—an acknowledgement that we are more than “bodies.” Apparently, there is an “I” in there somewhere, an “I” that desires more than another body with which to ensure the survival of the species. As a pastor, I’ve officiated my share of weddings and I’ve done my share of premarital counseling. I always ask couples why they are getting married. Survival of the species never makes the list.

The “I” and “You” that inhabit our bodies desire more than another body. We desire intimacy—to know and to be fully known without fear. Intimacy is fragile. Intimacy is powerful. Intimacy is fueled by exclusivity.

So, no, monogamy is not obsolete. It’s endangered. But so was the buffalo.  Perhaps we happily monogamous couples should relocate to Yellowstone.


Why I Prefer To Be Buried And Not Cremated

From Russell Moore’s new book Onward (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 61-62:

“Can’t I be resurrected from an urn as easily as I can from a casket?” they ask.  Of course.  That’s not the point.  God can resurrect me if my body is eaten by alligators, but I wouldn’t dispose of Aunt Gladys that way, shrugging and asking, “What does it matter?   See her in heaven.”  The way we treat the body is a sign of what we believe about the future.  The women around Jesus cared for his body, anointing it with spices, because it was him; they knew that the body is important because it will be part of the new creation, whether that resurrection happens in a matter of days or after billions of years of decay.  Christians respect the body because we believe our material bodies are part of God’s goal for us and for the universe.


The Family

Here’s a piece I wrote for the Illinois Baptist newspaper on the final article in the Baptist Faith & Message on “The Family.”

The Family


Which Bible Translation?

I’ve preached from the NIV for 10 years.  It was the Bible of my youth, so I have sentimental attachments to it.  I’ve generally been happy with its balance of accuracy and readability.

But the NIV I knew is no more.  And we will have a decision to make.

In 2011 an update to the NIV was released.  All previous versions are no longer available.  The changes were not minor.

A recent event at our church illustrates this well.  Last Sunday the Scripture reading was from Romans 3:21-28.  I was following along in my NIV (1984).  The reader was reading from the NIV that he found on  Look at the differences:

NIV (1984)

21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished– 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. 27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.

NIV (2011)

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in[a] Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement,[b] through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.  27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. 28 For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.

I won’t delve into the translation choices here.  My main point is just that these are two very different translations!

One major difference in the update is the shift to gender inclusive language.  I’m not entirely opposed to this across the board.  Two weeks ago I wanted to quote 2 Timothy 3:16-17.  In this famous passage on the inspiration of Scripture the ESV and HCSB and the NIV (1984) all say the Scriptures are useful so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped.  The word is anthropos, which is referring to humankind in general and not one specific gender.  So I checked out the new NIV to see what it did.  It had – “…so that the servant of God might be thoroughly equipped.”  It introduced into the inspired text a completely new word!  The Greek language had a word for servant, if that was what Paul wanted to use.  But, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he chose a different word – anthropos.  There are no textual variants that I am aware of.  The NIV translators, in an attempt to avoid the generic use of man replaced it with a word that’s not there!  This is a big problem.

I recently read the helpful book Which Bible Translation Should I Use?.  It compares the ESV, NIV, HCSB, and NLT.  None of these popular modern versions are perfect.  The NLT is definitely the weakest of the four.  Of the other three I believe that the ESV wins out.

But I wish the NIV (1984) was still an option.


Hold Fast the Confession

Yesterday I preached on Hebrews 4:14-16. One of the points was that we must “hold firmly to the faith we profess” (v. 14b). This charge doesn’t stem from an isolated snippet of Scripture. This is a repeated admonition (for example see 2Thess. 2:15, Titus 1:9, Jude 3). Theology is not supposed to be creative. Our task is simple: hold fast to the faith once for all handed down from Christ and his apostles. Don’t tinker or toy with it. As Millard Erickson put it, we may translate, but we must not transform. Furthermore, to hold firmly implies that there is substance to be grasped and it is not slippery.

Yet there is always a perennial pressure to lose your grip on the faith, to drift from the confession. Study of Church History will repeatedly bear this revisionist tendency out. W.A. Criswell in his rousing address to the Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference in 1985 put this pattern into poetic terms:

An institution can be like a great tree which in times past withstood the rain, and the wind, and the storm, and the lightning, but finally fell because the heart had rotted out. Insects, termites destroyed the great monarch of the woods. This is the unspeakably tragic thing that happens to many of our Christian institutions, and eventually threatens them all. They are delivered to secularism and infidelity, not because of a bitter frontal attack from without, but because of a slow, gradual permeation of the rot and curse of unbelief from within.

If you want to watch a powerful explanation of this, you can go here. If you do, keep in mind a few things:

(1) Not all Southern Baptists are Anglo Saxons (the current SBC president is Black).
(2) This was 1985 and not all Southern Baptists look or talk like this today.
(3) Criswell gave this address when he was in his mid 70s.
(4) To affirm the full authority of the Scriptures and decry the dangers of modern critical methods is not to be obscurantist.
(5) By God’s grace, there has been an unprecedented (!) turn around in the SBC since 1985…

…but the pressure is always before us…


A Normal Life of Love

I watched the series finale of The Office last night. Intriguing! There was so much there that echoes biblical truth (and so much there that undermines it too).

The last line was:

I think an ordinary paper company like Dunder Mifflin was a great subject for a documentary. There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?

Mark Galli has an article in the latest issue of Christianity Today about Rob Bell. But it’s about more than that. It’s about our religion of feeling and disdain of the ordinary. I found Galli’s last words to be utterly profound and full of biblical truth.

To be sure, we now also know joy, but only because the promise of our redemption is assured by Christ’s death and resurrection and made known to us by the Holy Spirit. But it’s not a present experience of redemption – of flourishing and thriving, of becoming all that we can be, of amazement at the immediate encounter with God each day – but the assured hope that redemption is coming. “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (vv. 24-25, ESV).

To wait in patience is just the opposite of what we are often encouraged to do. Instead, we convince ourselves that we don’t need patience as much as willpower, because if we do everything right, we can make divine encounters a daily, ongoing, and enthralling experience. But with this comes the corollary: There must be something wrong with me, something lacking in my devotion, if I don’t have these experiences. By contrast, Paul’s admonition to wait in patience suggests that it’s normal not to have such experiences.

Yes, they do happen. In his grace God gives us periodic glimpses of the future, tastes of what is coming. This happens in those famous conversion experiences, and in healings, in miracles, in those moments when God’s presence is keenly felt. I myself have experienced a healing of severe pain in my leg. I have also almost been “slain in the Spirit” (but got hold of myself just in time!). And as the Spirit leads, I speak in tongues. I have also had ecstatic experiences when the love of God penetrated my whole being.

And in a life of 60 years, I can count these experiences on one hand. Because I’ve had such experiences, I understand perfectly the desire to have them all the time, and to imagine that maybe there is a technique, a method, a way to pray, a way to be open and alert – something! – that will allow me to experience this daily. Believe me, I tried that for a while and discovered that, yes, I could manufacture something very similar to a genuine spiritual experience. But it soon became clear that the search for daily wonder was creating a religion of Mark Galli. It wasn’t helping me love my neighbor, though it did help me judge my neighbor as relatively unspiritual, at least compared to me.

I believe there is yet another reason we’re fascinated with divine encounters: our boredom with the life God has given us.

Instead of a life of experience, Christ calls us to a life of love. And a life of love for the most part means attending to the tedious details of others’ lives, and serving them in sacrificial ways that most days feels, well, not exciting at all. Rather than sweeping the kitchen, cleaning the toilet, listening to the talkative and boring neighbor, slopping eggs onto a plate at the homeless shelter, or crunching numbers for another eight hours at the office – surely life is meant for more than this. We are tempted to wonder, Is that all there is to the “abundant” Christian life? Shouldn’t my life be more adventurous if God is in me and all around me? How am I going to be all I’m supposed to be if I have to empty bedpans in Peoria? I would just die if I had to do that.

Yes, you would. Jesus called it dying to self. Love is precisely denying the self that wants to glory in experience. The cost of discipleship most of us are asked to pay is to live the life God has given us, serving in mundane ways the people he has put in our path. To be free from the self and to discover such love is the essence of abundant life.

As Paul put it, in the final analysis love is not about speaking in tongues, having prophetic powers, understanding all mysteries or knowledge, having experiences of wonder, or being all we can be. Love instead “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7; ESV). Yes, endures. It endures now because it hopes. And it hopes because it has not yet been given in full what is promised, but only glimpses here and there, mere appetizers to the great kingdom feast.