Falling Away or Cut Off? Romans and the Question of Apostasy

I’ve recently had the opportunity to contribute to a three-part series of essays on the question of apostasy. The essays are being published at the Center for Pastor Theologians blog and will be written by fellows of the Center from different eccesial traditions who (consequently) handle the question in somewhat different ways. My contribution was posted today. Here’s the intro:

The recent departure of Joshua Harris not only from Christian ministry but from Christianity altogether has brought questions regarding apostasy and falling away to the forefront of recent evangelical dialogue. Can a true believer fall from grace? If someone commits apostasy, were they ever really saved? If it is indeed possible to lose your salvation, how does it happen? What’s the condition? How should we understand the notion of perseverance? What do key biblical texts say about the issue?

You can read the rest at the CPT blog. If the CPT is new to you, be sure to check out the other resources on the site. I’ll also add links to the other contributions once they go live.

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 Christians Suffer and Fight

Understanding Philippians means understanding the problems the church in Philippi faced. In this video, Dr. Matt O’Reilly walks us through the two major challenges that Paul had to deal with and shows how they apply to the contemporary church.

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.

No Redemption without Resurrection


Easter has come, but it hasn’t gone. We are now several days into The Great 50 Days (or Eastertide), the period between Easter Sunday and Pentecost. It’s an important reminder that Easter is not just one day on the calendar, it’s a season. So, I’m continuing to reflect on the importance of resurrection. (In truth, the significance of resurrection occupies my thinking  most of the year, not just this season.) The bottom line from my Easter sermon was this: “There’s no redemption without resurrection.” Here are a couple of reasons that’s true.

God Loses

If there is no bodily resurrection, sin wins and God loses. God did not design human beings to die. All through scripture death is the consequence of sin. From Genesis 2:17, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die,” to Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.” We are bound to decay and death because of sin. So we can infer that if God intended human beings obey the command to not sin, then God did not design human beings to die. That was not his intent. It was not the plan. Sin and death are the twin enemies of God, his people, and creation as a whole.

I wrote earlier this week on why dying and going to heaven is not enough. And this reflection reinforces that point. If the body dies and we find ourselves conscious in heaven (as scripture teaches), and if that’s the climax of salvation (which scripture does not teach), then sin wins and God loses. Why? Because going to heaven is another way of saying the body is dead. An essential part of our human existence remains in the grave. Dying and going to heaven does not mean we are more alive than ever – despite what D.L. Moody may have thought. Dying and going to heaven means we are dead. Now let me be clear: I am not denying that believers enter the presence of Jesus when they die. I affirm that wholeheartedly. What I am saying is that heaven should be seen the way scripture portrays it: as a period of waiting for bodily resurrection. Only when the body is raised will any of us be more alive – and more fully human – than ever before.

That’s why there’s no redemption without resurrection. Sin is our enemy. Death is the consequence of sin. If we die and remain dead, the enemy wins and God loses. That’s why scripture spends so much time on the past resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of believers. That’s why Paul says, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26). And that enemy is destroyed when Christ returns to raise the dead. Only “then will the saying that is written be fulfilled, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory'” (1 Cor 15:54). Note the future tense verb. The dead in Christ are still dead. The saying has not yet been fulfilled. We’re still waiting on that, because (like the saints in heaven) we are still waiting to be raised from the dead.

More than forgiveness

Sometimes (not always) the way we do evangelism suggests that we only need forgiveness from sin. Think about it. How often are people invited to pray and ask forgiveness so they can go to heaven? The focus there is on what the individual must do to avoid the consequence of their sin. You’ve heard the cliché about salvation as fire insurance; this sort of evangelism is what it’s talking about.

Again, let me be clear. I’m not saying that we don’t need forgiveness. Of course, we do. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do evangelism. Of course, we should. What I’m saying is that we need more than forgiveness. We need new life. The one is a means to the other. Forgiveness is a means. New life is the end. That new life looks like growth in holiness now and bodily resurrection later. That’s what God wants. Of course, God has to forgive our sins. He can’t fill a bunch of unforgiven sinners with the beauty of his holy love. But forgiveness is not the goal. Holiness leading to resurrection life is.

Think about the death and resurrection of Jesus this way. Christ died and his blood was shed to forgive our sin. He was raised from the dead to launch God’s new creation and give us new life. The death and resurrection of Jesus are two parts of one complete redemptive event. The cross is not enough. That’s why Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19 that if Christ hasn’t been raised, faith is a waste of time. We need the new life that comes out of the tomb on Easter morning.

And our evangelism should reflect that need. Forgiveness is not the goal of evangelism, and we shouldn’t evangelize as if it were. Our proclamation of the gospel – our Lord  Jesus Christ has died and was raised – should present forgiveness of sin as a step that enables us to experience new transformed life in the present and resurrection of the body in the future. There’s no redemption without resurrection because we need more than forgiveness of sin.

For more on holiness now and resurrection later, watch this Seven Minute Seminary.

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

Bodily Resurrection and Identity Formation in Paul

What does future bodily resurrection have to do with present life in the body? Do Paul’s pastoral goals shed light on his attitude toward resurrection? Does hope for resurrection bear on the formation of group identity in the Pauline communities? These are the questions that energized my doctoral research, which is now available electronically from the University of Gloucestershire Research Repository. Here’s the abstract:

This study investigates how Paul’s attitude towards future bodily resurrection functions in relation to his expectations for believers’ use of their bodies in the present, both as individuals and as a community. I argue that embodiment is essential to Paul’s anthropology, and that Paul understands future bodily resurrection primarily in social terms. Drawing on insights from the social sciences and rhetorical studies, I also argue that future bodily resurrection functions in the letters under consideration as a future possible social identity that contributes to Paul’s persuasive strategies with regard to his expectations for believers’ behavior. In general, it will become clear that Paul expects his recipients to use their bodies in ways that stand in continuity with the resurrection-oriented future social identity. After an introductory chapter orienting the reader to questions, method, and relevant scholarly discussion, chapter 2 sheds light on the social dynamics of Paul’s attitude toward future bodily resurrection in general and the function of the resurrection-oriented future identity in particular through a close reading of 1 Cor 15:12–58; 6:12–20; and 2 Cor 4:7–5:10. Chapter 3 offers a detailed analysis of the relationship between resurrection and practice in Rom 6:1–23 and 8:9–25 to argue that Paul’s understanding of that relationship provides a framework for understanding table fellowship as bodily practice in Rom 14 and 15. Chapter 4 takes up Phil 3:12–4:1 and argues that Paul’s language of resurrection fosters a common ingroup identity that serves the letter’s double goal of mitigating faction and strengthening the recipients to persevere in the face of persecution. A final chapter synthesizes the overall findings of the research.

If that strikes your fancy, you may want to read the whole thing.

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

Unlikely People, Surprising Results

When you serve as pastor of a local church, you pick up on things. You don’t pick up on everything. But you do pick up on some things. One of those things is a perception held by many people in more than a few churches. A lot of people have it in their heads that God cannot work through them. Now this could be for any number of reasons. Maybe they think God is hindered by their lack of training or education. Maybe they are convinced that they don’t have the right gifts or talents. Maybe they are so immobilized by the shame of their past that they are sure God wants nothing to do with them, let alone use them to make the world a better place. If you are one of those people, then I’ve got some good news for you. God uses unlikely people to do surprising things. In fact, the more unlikely you are, the more God is pleased to work through you.

An unlikely apostle

This reality emerges from the life story of the apostle Paul. If that name is unfamiliar to you, he’s responsible for writing a healthy chunk of the Bible. He’s was also one of the first and most important people to spread the good news of hope in Jesus Christ. What’s interesting about Paul is that started out hating Jesus. Not only did he hate Jesus, he hated the followers of Jesus. So, if you were one of the first followers of Jesus in and around Jerusalem in the first century, Paul was somebody you would have wanted to avoid. Paul tells part of his story in his New Testament letter to the Galatians. He writes about an earlier period of his life when he was, “violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13 NRSV). Now we have people today whose religious convictions motivate them to act violently. Sometimes we call those people terrorists. And it may surprise you to learn that analogy is not altogether out of place when considering Paul’s life before Jesus got hold of him. Remember what I told you. God uses unlikely people to do surprising things. 
Later in life Paul could look back and see that God was at work in his life, even though he didn’t know it. A little further on in that same letter to the Galatians he wrote that God “called me through his grace” and “was pleased to reveal his Son to me” (1:15 NRSV). Did you catch that? God’s grace was big enough to cover the sins of a man who behaved violently toward God’s church. If that’s true, I’m thinking God can pretty much handle whatever messes we’ve made. And what was the result for Paul? God ended up using a man who hated the followers of Jesus to proclaim the good news about Jesus to the nations. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that an unlikely person with some surprising results.

Get ready for change

Now if you want God to use your unlikely life to accomplish something surprising, you need to be prepared for change. Radical change. Just think about Paul. He went from persecuting Christian believers to proclaiming the faith he had tried to destroy (Galatians 1:23). That’s what I call 180 degree turn-around. That’s some serious change. And here’s the thing. No one ever surprised anyone by continuing to do the same things they’ve always done. That’s what we call predictability, not surprising. So God may be calling you to do something unexpected, but it will require you to do some things differently. It will require new habits, new disciplines, new attitudes, new passion, and probably some new courage. God does surprising things through unlikely people, but not while they are doing the same old things.

It takes preparation

Developing new habits and new disciplines and new passion does not usually happen overnight. It typically takes some preparation. When God called Paul to be a church-planting missionary, Paul didn’t get started right away. He reminded the Galatians that he went away for a while. A long while. This new and surprising vocation would require some essential preparation. Paul had to learn how to read his Bible again; he had to develop an eye for how God’s promises are kept in Jesus. Most of us don’t have the kind of dramatic conversion experience that Paul had. And even with that experience he still needed substantial time being trained and equipped for the mission God had planned. How much more for all of us?

It may seem crazy

Chances are that if God uses you to do something surprising, somebody is going to think you are crazy. God may call you to sell your house in the suburbs and move to the most dangerous part of town to bring the light of Jesus to that dark place. God may call you to move to Costa Rica and join the effort to rescue women and girls from the sex trade. God may call you to go plant a church in a part of the world where terrorists cut off the heads of Christians. Or God may call you to do something else. The point is this: God uses unlikely people to do surprising things. Often times, other people think those surprising things are also crazy things. But hey. If it seemed normal, it probably wouldn’t be surprising.

It’s God’s pleasure

What may be most surprising is that God does not begrudgingly work through unlikely people. He is not sitting around lamenting the fact that he has generally inadequate folks to work with. It turns out that God actually enjoys working through unlikely people. He gets a kick out of it. Remember a few minutes ago when we were talking about when God called Paul. Paul said God was pleased to reveal Jesus to him. God was pleased. Not only does God do surprising things through unlikely people, he is pleased to do it. The way I see it, being unlikely just keeps getting better and better. 
This post was originally published in The Call News on March 29, 2017.

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

The United Methodist Church and the Sovereignty of God (#UMC)

To say that United Methodist anxiety levels are heightened would be an understatement. As deeply entrenched sides await this week’s arguments before the Judicial Council (our ecclesial high court), worry and frustration abound. And there’s no promise that it will subside, regardless of the Council’s decision. It’s painful. And in the midst of these stormy times, I have become persuaded that what the Church needs most – right now! – is a good dose of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about the doctrine of meticulous sovereignty that characterizes Calvinist theology propagated by the young, restless, and Reformed. I’m not talking about a God who irrevocably elects and condemns. I’m talking about what John Wesley meant when he said in his sermon “On Divine Providence” that God “is infinite in wisdom as well as power: And all his wisdom is continually employed in managing all the affairs of his creation for the good of all his creatures” (Sermon 67:14). About this teaching Wesley said, “There is scarce any doctrine in the whole compass of revelation, which is of deeper importance than this;” he also said there is no other doctrine so “little regarded, and perhaps so little understood (Sermon 67:7)  In painful times, we need to focus on what’s important. We need to know that God has not given up on his children. He loves us. And he is at work for our good.
Providence and well-being
Wesley’s doctrine of God’s providence derives from his doctrine of creation. If God made everything that exists, then God knows every detail about everything that exists, because he is the author of that detail. And he did not create this complex world only to ignore the details. After all, the number of the hairs on our heads, be they many or few, are known by God (Luke 12:7). Scripture led Wesley to conclude that God is deeply concerned with what seem the most insignificant details in the lives of his children. There is no affair so small that it is beneath the regard of the triune God. “For we know that, to those who love God, he works all things together for good, to those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, emphasis added). 
Brothers and sisters, the current troubles of the United Methodist Church have not taken God by surprise. He is not caught off-guard. He frets not. He is not wondering what to do with us. To the contrary, he is at rest. And from that posture he is working within our circumstances to bring good for those who love him and are committed to his purpose for the Church and the world. His countenance is marked by noble and kingly joviality. His care for his beloved is unhindered. And his ultimate purpose to fill his creation with the knowledge of his glory will not be undone. Rest assured. 
Be patient
This means that, despite what we want, we can and must be patient. We want all of our problems to be resolved, and we want them to be resolved now. Patience feels like doing nothing. And we don’t want to wait around for the next press release or the next conference or the next declaratory decision. We want to do something. We want it fixed. We want the pain to go away. 
But patience is not idleness; it’s the fruit of the Spirit. It’s an expression of faith that we can trust God to work for our good no matter how long it takes. It is of the utmost importance to remember that God’s great priority is not our daily or temporal comfort. He is primarily concerned to fill the world with the unparalleled beauty of his glory by reproducing his holy love in creatures who bear his image and bear it well. And that takes time. 
Wesley understood this and made the point in paragraph 15 of “On Divine Providence.” To summarize, it takes time because being made in the image of God comes with some degree of liberty, and far too often we’ve use that liberty to mess things up. God will not magically fix all of our problems today because that would counteract his work of making human beings in his image with the relative freedom that involves. I don’t know how long it will take to find resolution for our United Methodist mess. I do expect that it will get worse before it gets better. But we must not allow that expectation to rob us of joy. We must trust that God is at work to renew us in the image of Christ in the midst of this mess. That’s what we need. That’s what the Church needs. That’s what the world needs. That takes patience. So, pray for me. And I’ll pray for you.
There’s a condition
I cited Romans 8:28 above to make the point that God is attentive to every detail in the lives of his children, and that he is at work in every circumstance to bring good. It would be inattentive, however, to neglect the point that this promise comes with a condition. It is for “those who love God” and “are called according to his purpose.” Let us not forget that, for Jesus, love is expressed in obedience (John 14:15). God has revealed his purposes in scripture. He has called us to be his people. He requires our believing obedience. If we are committed to those things, we can rest assured that he is at work for our good. The operative word there is rest. Love Jesus. Obey scripture. Rest in the knowledge that God loves you and is at work for your good. 
I don’t know what the Judicial Council will decide after all the arguments are made later this week. I do know that, whatever they decide, a lot of people will be unhappy. Now more than ever, the faithful need to remember that the God who loves us is at work in us to reproduce his character in us for the life of the world. That is what matters. And he will not be thwarted. The bride of the Lamb will one day be clothed with holiness and splendor. You can count on it. God will not give up. And neither must we. 
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

New Post: Resurrection Makes Us Holy (@OfficialSeedbed)

During my recent trip to Wilmore, Kentucky, I had the opportunity to film another episode for Seedbed‘s growing Seven Minute Seminary series. This one explores the relationship between future bodily resurrection, Christian identity, and holiness. These three themes were at the heart of my PhD research, and I’m grateful to Seedbed for making some of that available more broadly. If you receive this via an email subscription, click here to watch the video. And be sure to check out my other contributions to Seven Minute Seminary over on the video page.


Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Connect on Facebook or follow @mporeilly.