Signs and Wonders: The Power of God in the Gospel of John

I’ve just finished a series of messages focused on the miracles of Jesus that appear in the Gospel of John. The miracles can be tough to preach on. So the series was a big opportunity to grow as preacher. It presented challenges, but it was also a lot of fun.

John calls the miracles “signs.” And my approach throughout the series revolved around the way the miracles should be understood as signs of new creation. We spend a lot time considering how John wants his readers to see the Creator at work in Jesus bringing the world he made from darkness to the light of new creation.

One other thing, this series of sermons was the climax of a year-long program under the John Stott Award for Pastoral Engagement from the Henry Center for Theological Understanding and The John Templeton Foundation. It was a great experience, and I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity. Here’s the full playlist, or you can click over and watch on YouTube.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians.  He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations.

Penal Substitution as Trinitarian Love: A Response to Frederick W. Schmidt

Rublev’s famous icon depicts the other-oriented love of the God who is triune.

Is God a violent monster? If you think Jesus embraced the penalty of your sin on your behalf, then the Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. believes you must “believe in a Monster-God whose both character and motives are at odds the Christian tradition.” At least that what he claims in a recent article called “The Monster-God of Penal Substitution.” Schmidt is no insignificant critic. He is the author or editor of numerous books and holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, all of which are reasons we might expect him to levy an argument that is not marked by fallacy. But, alas, we expect too much.

Steel Man, not a Straw Man

The chief fallacy Schmidt commits is that of arguing against a straw man. That is to say, he marshals an argument against the weakest form of penal substitution and fails to even acknowledge that there might be more robust articulations of the doctrine. Schmidt paints penal substitution as a fundamentalist doctrine that pits an angry God the Father against the “innocent victim” of God the Son. In this way of thinking, substitution is branded as a dangerous teaching characterized by what might be considered divine child abuse. How could anyone love a God like that? How could such a monster be worthy of our worship? Well, I’ve got good news for Schmidt and any who share his concerns. Serious proponents of penal substitution don’t actually believe in that sort of God either.

In the classes I teach, I always encourage my students to represent their opponents as well and as accurately as possible. I remind them that misrepresenting those whith whom they disagree undermines their credibility and makes their arguments easily refutable. The opponent can simply note that the critique is offered against a view they don’t hold. Some put it this way: be sure to argue against a steel man, not a straw man. That is to say, argue against the best version of whatever you are criticizing. It’s easy to knock over a scarecrow. A statue forged of metal takes a bit more work and, when it is toppled, is cause for rather more respect.

A Trinitarian Approach

So, what is the more robust version of penal substitution that critics of the doctrine need to take seriously? It is a version that accounts for the trinitarian nature of God. The problem with the “Monster-God” construal of substitution is that it emphasizes the personal distinction between God the Father and God the Son and neglects the unity of being between God the Father and God the Son. The trinitarian doctrine of God says both that God is three distinct persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and that Father, Son, and Spirit are one in deity, glory, power, eternity, and being. (If it helps, remember that “persons” is the word we use to talk about trinitarian distinction, and “being” is the word we use to talk about trinitarian oneness or unity.) We run into trouble (1) when we emphasize the distinction between persons to the neglect of their union and (2) when we emphasize the union of the Godhead to the neglect of their distinction. Balance must be maintained.

What happens to penal substitution when we approach it with the essential unity between God the Father and God the Son in mind? Consider this. In the person of Jesus, the second person of the Trinity took upon himself the penalty that the one triune God requires for transgressions of the law that the one triune God has issued. In Jesus, God takes the penalty of human sin on God’s self. It’s worth noting also that Jesus is no passive victim. To the contrary, he is the judge who doles out the penalty. Consider that in the canonical gospels it’s not God the Father who is portrayed as the judge before whom all must one day stand. Jesus insists that role belongs to him (Matt 7:21-24). It is the Son of Man who separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31-40). Jesus is the Lawgiver and the Judge who steps down from the bench to take upon himself the penalty he himself requires. And when the triune God, in his eternal counsel, determined that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), the one God knew the day would come when he would take on flesh and feel the horrible weight of those wages for the sake of the rebel creatures he loves. In this way, Jesus embodies and reveals the perfect, self-giving love that characterizes the eternal unity of the Trinitarian persons. If we want a robust account of penal substitution, it requires a balanced account of trinitarian love. This is what Schmidt fails to offer. That is why his argument is flawed and unconvincing.

Resist the Caricature

Let me add before concluding that I would offer the same argument against any who might actually hold the view Schmidt critiques. Against those who promote a caricature of penal substitution as an angry or unhinged monster-God furiously abusing an innocent victim, I would say they’ve failed to reckon with the trinitarian love of the one God, and they need to rethink their account of substitution.

What then shall we say? Is penal substitution the only way to talk about what God has done in Christ to redeem us? Certainly not. Dr. Schmidt helpfully reminds us of other ways to talk about the atonement (e.g., recapitulation). But is penal substitution one of the central ways that God reveals his trinitarian love? It certainly is. And when we miss that, we miss out an expression of God’s perfect love that is not only good and true but beautiful as well.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.  He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice (SBL Press).

For more from Matt on understanding the Trinity, watch this video. Then subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel.

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

John Wesley on Voting (and American Politics)

To state the obvious, American politics are polarized. That polarization has cultivated a lack of civility. That incivility has resulted in both sides demonizing the other and, at times, engaging in acts of violence. When citizens begin engaging in violence against political opponents, their society is in danger. A republic cannot be maintained without debate marked by civility and charity.

How to Vote

The temptation to speak evil of those with whom we disagree politically is not new. John Wesley was concerned about it in the 18th century. And he had some wisdom for the people called Methodists as they considered the candidates for whom they would vote. As we head into the midterm elections next week, we would do well to follow his advice. Wesley had three points to keep in mind, which he recorded in his journal from October 6, 1774. He wrote: “I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them,

  1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy:
  2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against: And,
  3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.

Don’t sell your vote. Don’t speak evil of your opponents. Keep a generous spirit toward those who disagree with you. Three essential elements of healthy and constructive political engagement.

Can the Church lead?

What is perhaps most tragic is that the demonization of political opponents has been perpetuated by many in the Church. And this is true on both sides of the aisle. Christians on the left and Christians on the right have both participated in less than charitable tactics and speech in the effort to advance their political views and agendas.  Rather than leading the way in robust political discourse, the Church has sadly participated in the degradation of healthy debate.

Love your (political) enemies

Wesley’s three points are only an application of Jesus’ command to “love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:44). It is absolutely impossible to obey our Lord’s command to love your enemies and, at the same time, speak evil and sharpen your spirit against political opponents. That is not to suggest we avoid political debate. Rather, it is to avoid unhealthy shouting matches in order to make space for rigorous, yet charitable, political debate. Detest is not synonymous with debate. To the contrary, it’s actually quite difficult to debate people we detest. What we need is political discourse that is thoughtful, clear, and  charitable, all the while taking the points on which we diverge with the utmost seriousness.

My prayer is that we have not gone too far down the path of incivility. Perhaps we can repent and return to political debate that honors God and one another. Perhaps the people of God can even lead the way.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Not Rapture, Rescue (It’s Good to Be Left Behind)

Plenty of people are expecting the rapture, an event in which Christians are all taken up from the earth into heaven. The problem is that the Bible knows no such event. Yep, that’s right. There’s no rapture in the Bible. And the passages sometimes thought to be about the rapture are about something else entirely. In this video, Dr. Matt O’Reilly walks us through one such passage – Matthew 24.36-42. He explains why these verses teach that it’s actually a good thing to be left behind.

Interested in more? Here are two books that critique the rapture.
The Rapture Exposed by Barbara Rossing
The Problem with Evangelical Theology by Ben Witherington

And here are two books for an alternative (and optimistic!) biblical eschatology.
Heaven Misplaced by Douglas Wilson
Deep Comedy by Peter Leithart

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

When Mourning Moves Mission

Everyone loves the mountaintop experience. You know what I mean. It’s that sweet sense of joy that comes with a deep awareness of God’s presence. Those times nurture us and strengthen us. We need  them. It is inevitable, however, that those seasons on the mountaintop will be met with seasons of sorrow, seasons in which it is more difficult to perceive the presence of God, seasons of mourning. You don’t have to live long on this earth to learn that life comes with suffering, and suffering comes with sorrow. Knowing that experience is unavoidable. So it’s reassuring to know that Jesus understands this and is attentive to our pain. And it’s good news to hear him say

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4).

But is there purpose in our pain? Does our mourning have meaning? Will God bring good from our sorrow?  To answer those questions we have to step back and consider the larger context of the beatitudes within the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is not simply a list of rules to be kept or a new law to be followed. The Sermon on the Mount is formative and transformative. It’s about becoming a new kind of person. It’s about becoming the kind of person who brings hope and healing to a broken world. It’s about becoming the kind of person who can pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). And it’s about being that kind of person in times of joy and sorrow. Cultivating the character described in the beatitudes makes us into that kind of people.  So if righteous sorrow forms us into kingdom people, then we must conclude that

Sorrow for our broken world motivates mission to heal the world.

What sort of sorrow?

There’s more than one kind of sorrow. And we need to be clear on the sort of thing Jesus is talking about. For starters, he’s not talking about sorrow over worldly trouble. Perhaps you are grieving because you’ve been fired from a job. But you were fired because you lied to your employer. That’s not what Jesus has in mind here. There’s a difference between righteous sorrow and being sorry you got caught.

When it comes to righteous morning, there are two kinds of sorrow. The first involves sorrow over our own sin. The second involves sorrow over the world’s brokenness.

Let’s start with the first. When the Holy Spirit begins to convict us of sin, it should produce sorrow. We should mourn our depravity. We should mourn our rebellion against God. We should grieve over the separation our transgression has created between us and God and the negative impact it’s had on the people around us. And that grieving should move us toward Jesus, who comforts us with the knowledge of his love revealed most perfectly in his atoning death and resurrection.

And as we are drawn closer to Jesus, the Holy Spirit will increase our mourning over the brokenness of the world. God’s good world is groaning as it awaits liberation from bondage to the power of sin and death. The evidence of that bondage should be clear to all. The last week brought news of how the British government withdrew life support from twenty-three month old Alfie Evans and deprived him of food, because his life was not deemed worthy of care. My heart grieves to live in a world that cares not for our most vulnerable. I hope yours does, too. Not long ago I traveled to Guatemala and saw first-hand a community of people who survive by digging through the city dump for recyclables to sell. This includes kids who don’t have time for school because they must join their families in the search for trash to sell. My heart grieves for them. I hope yours does, too. I mourn every time I drive by the Planned Parenthood clinic just around the corner. My heart is filled with sorrow to live in a society that sees human life as a throw-away, and my soul aches for the women who feel like walking through those doors is their only option. I hope yours does, too.

From Mourning to Mission

If you look, you’ll discover this second kind of mourning in Jesus.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing (Matthew 23:37).

The rebellion of God’s people was plain to our Lord. And it grieved his heart. But he did not wallow in his sorrow. He did something about it. The brokenness of our world motivated Jesus to heal the world. So he set his tear-stained face toward the cross, and he offered his life in place of ours. And he did it to keep his promise to comfort those who mourn their own sin and the sin of the world.

Now this is tough. Because our first inclination is to run from pain. But Jesus runs toward it. Not because he loves pain, but because he loves people. And if we want to be his followers, then our holy sorrow should motivate us to engage the world with the hope of healing that comes through Christ alone. Christian discipleship means running toward the places where the world is in pain. It means embracing the sorrow of Jesus for the sorrows of this world. It means knowing that he goes ahead of us and that he offers comfort to us on the way. And, more importantly, it means knowing he will offer comfort through us to our neighbors and the nations.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and adjunct professor at Wesley Biblical Seminary and Houston Baptist University. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.