Here’s My New 7 Minute Seminary: The Doctrine of Sin (@OfficialSeedbed)

Here’s my latest contribution to the Seven Minute Seminary series at Seedbed.com. This one is on the Doctrine of Sin and touches on a variety of relevant issues. What is the difference between Original Sin and Total Depravity? Does Total Depravity mean we are as bad as we could be? What are the pastoral implications of the Doctrine of Sin? 

Check out my other Seven Minute Seminary contributions:

New SermonCast: "First Things First" #UMC

Every organization that wants to be around and be effective for the long haul must, at some point, ask the question: What is the most important thing? They must decide what matters most, and then they must resolve to keep that most important thing always before their eyes, always in front of them. They must pursue it relentlessly. They must keep first things first.

The Church of Jesus Christ is no different. Like any other organization, we must decide our priorities and keep first things first. Check out this week’s sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 to find out what the Church’s “first thing” is and why we must keep it always in front.

Epiphany and Gospel-Passion for the Nations

Today is Epiphany, the day on which the Church celebrates the arrival of the Magi to honor and give gifts to the Christ child. The Magi were foreigners come to honor Christ as king. Matthew is commonly known as the gospel to the Jews; so it may strike some as somewhat peculiar that the first evangelist would place an account of the journey of these (non-Jewish) Magi prominently near the beginning of his gospel. When we remember, however, that the Old Testament – the Psalms and Isaiah not least – is full of passages that anticipate the day when Israel’s Messiah shall rule the nations, it shouldn’t surprise us that the gospel to the Jews would highlight a vignette in which representatives of the nations flock to worship “the child who has been born king of the Jews” (Matt 2:2).

Given this focus on the gospel for the nations, the lectionary yesterday directed us to Ephesians 3:1-12, in which Paul explains the mystery that God has kept hidden for ages, namely that “the nations have become co-inheritors and participating members of the covenant promises in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:6). That the nations have been incorporated into the promises of God to Abraham and his descendants drives the passion of the apostle to the Gentiles. It is that passion that motivated him to write (despite his sufferings) in hope that the churches – then and now – would catch his passion. So, as we celebrate and anticipate the ongoing in-gathering of the nations, here are three reasons drawn from Ephesians 2 and 3 for why we as Christians should have a passion for getting the gospel to every nation. 
1. Because God is Passionate about the Nations
There’s a reason that the gospel accounts of Christ’s suffering and death have come to be known as passion narratives. Our word “passion” comes from a Latin word that means to suffer, and if you care so deeply about another person that you are willing to suffer for them to the point of death on a cross, then it’s safe to say you are passionate about them. When Paul starts talking about what is accomplished in the cross in Ephesians 2:11-22, his focus is on its instrumentality in creating peace between Israel and the nations. The uncircumcised have been reconciled to the circumcised; those alien to the commonwealth of Israel have been made citizens; strangers to the covenant are now participating members. “The blood of Christ” has done away with division and hostility between Israel and the nations to create “in Christ” a “new humanity in place of the two” (Eph 2:13-15). The cross is not only about individual forgiveness (it is about that because that’s how you get in!), but also about creating a worldwide and international single people of God in Christ. If the cross means anything, it means that God is passionate about incorporating the nations into the family of Abraham through the preaching of the gospel. And if God is that passionate about the nations, then his people must be passionate too. 
2. Because We are the Nations
If you are reading this as a Christ-following Jew, then you are permitted to skip on to number three. I’m writing as an American of Irish descent, which means that when Paul writes in Ephesians 2:11-12 about the Gentiles who are “aliens from the commonwealth…strangers to the covenants….having no hope and without God in the world,” he is talking about me, and everyone else who is not physically descended from Abraham. Of all people, we should be passionate about getting the gospel to the nations because we are the nations. Those who by grace have been “brought near by the blood of Christ” and made citizens of the commonwealth of Israel and members of the covenant have benefited incalculably from the passion of God for the nations. Shall we now not also passionately desire the unreached peoples of the world to likewise share in those rich blessings of God’s extravagant mercy? We should be passionate about getting the gospel to the nations because the passion of God has brought the gospel to us. 
3. Because an International Church Displays the Richness of God’s Wisdom
This is the plan, the design, the point of everything. This is what history is all about. If you want to know why God made all things, why God made you and me and the world, the answer comes in Ephesian 3:10; he did it so that “through the Church the wisdom of God in its many-splendored variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” As someone once said, “It’s not about you,” and it’s not about me. As it turns out, it’s about God. Creation is about God. History is about God. The Church is about God, and about displaying the magnificently rich and varied wisdom of God. I’ve read that the Greek word rendered above as “many-splendored” is one that would be used to describe a garden with every imaginable color of flower. That’s the rich variety of the wisdom of God, and richness like that could never be properly displayed in a single homogeneous people-group. It takes a diverse people to display the beauty of the multifaceted wisdom of God. Thus the mystery of God has been revealed: the nations have been incorporated into the one people of God. God desires a Church made up of every nation because God has designed the Church as the stage on which is displayed the magnificence of the beauty of his incomparable glory. If we want the world to marvel at the wisdom of God, then we ought to be passionately taking the gospel to the nations in order that the wonder of the wisdom of God might be displayed as he has designed. 
So, how’s your passion for the nations this Epiphany? I hope it’s on the rise and that the words of the Psalmist will well up within you:

May God be gracious to us and bless us
 and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known on earth,
 your saving power among all the nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
 let all the peoples praise you!
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
 for you judge the peoples with equity
 and guide the nations upon the earth.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
 let all the peoples praise you (67:1-5)!

The Desire of God

“For God so loved the world” may be the most well-known and oft memorized verse of scripture ever. And rightly so. It summarizes the heart of the Christian gospel, the good news that God’s passionate love is revealed in the presence of Christ. I came across an article last week, of which the title alone caused me to think afresh about the nature of God’s love for us. The article was called, “God Desires You far More than You Desire Him,” and it got me to thinking: We know God loves us, but how often do we remember that he also desires us?
God’s Desire for Us
The word “love” has come to mean different things to different people. From sports to books and food to friends, we “love” all sorts of things. People fall in “love” and out of “love”. I remember once hearing a comedian point out that you have to love your family, but you don’t have to like them. Everyone knows that we don’t mean the same thing in each instance. We also know that none of these examples really get at what scripture means when it speaks of God’s “love” for us. This whirlwind of contemporary meanings and uses makes it difficult sometimes to reflect on the profound reality of God’s love for us, which means we sometimes need fresh language to energize our understanding of God’s self-revelation. 
That’s why I like the word “desire”. It’s a word that gets at a person’s deepest motivations and longings. We do what we desire most to do, for good or ill. The language of desire communicates something about our affections and our passions. I find it a helpful term when I reflect on John 3:16 and the surrounding verses. You don’t give your only son for people that you love in the same way you love a slice of pizza. You don’t descend from heaven for people that you might fall out of love with. You do those things because they are motivated by desires that are at the heart of your identity. 
Desire and Descent
In John’s gospel, this self-giving desire of God for us is understood in terms of incarnation and crucifixion. If we read John 3:16 closely, we will find that the love of God is the cause that results in the incarnation and the crucifixion. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has descended from heaven and that he will be lifted up (on the cross) for the purpose of granting eternal life to those who believe. John wants his readers to know that these two events (and everything in between) are the demonstration of God’s desire to rescue the world from perishing. The birth of Christ and the death of Christ are the revelation and demonstration of the desire of the triune God for us, a desire that is infinite in intensity and stronger than we can possible conceive or imagine. 
Desire and Disbelief
That God so desires us is striking. What is even more striking is that he desires us despite our disbelief. Whether they are the words of Jesus or the narrator’s commentary, the following verses make this point: Jesus comes not to condemn the world, but to a world that is condemned already (3:18). He came to a world lost in the darkness of unbelief, “He came to his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11). Remarkably, Jesus doesn’t look at the unbelieving world and say with arms crossed and face scowled, “You’ll get what’s coming to you.” To the contrary, he descends to us in order to take up our humanity, redeem it, and provide a way to escape the condemnation under which we naturally stand. He desires us despite our disbelief. 
Desire and Darkness
Most of us don’t think of ourselves as those who desire darkness, but John likes to paint things in stark contrast to make a strong point. So, for John, there is light and there is dark. Jesus is light. Everything else is dark. We do well to indulge the gospel writer and do a little diagnostic self-analysis. Are there times when we choose to walk away from the light of Christ and toward darkness. What about when we go all day (or multiple days) without taking time to engage in private worship? Are we desiring light or darkness? What about intentionally harmful words to a spouse or unnecessarily harsh attitudes towards our children? Are we choosing light or darkness? A little white lie? Light or darkness? Derogatory comments about our boss behind his or her back? You get the picture. Sometimes diagnostics can be a little depressing. Thanks be to God that at the heart of the good news is the truth that God’s desire for us does not depend on how much we desire him. To borrow the language of the creed, Christ came down from heaven for us and for our salvation, and he did it not because we desired him but because we didn’t. 
Desire and Worship
One of the most common questions I’ve received since the start of my pastoral ministry is this: If God knew that human beings would sin and bring all this hurt and pain and brokenness and damage into the world, why did he still choose to create the world with us in it? It’s a hard question, but I think we can get toward an answer by reflecting on the depth of God’s desire for us. To do so we need to remember that the cross is not Plan B. Our sin did not take God by surprise; he was not wringing his hands in desperation wondering what to do next. No, when God chose to bring the world into existence, he did so with the full knowledge that he would take on human flesh and die a gruesome death to atone for our sin and reconcile us to himself. And he still chose to to make the world. And he still chose to make us. 
We always do what we most desire. Apparently, God desires us more than he desires avoiding the exceeding pain of a whip on his back, thorns in his brow, nails in his wrists, and the weight of the world’s sin on his shoulders. A friend and colleague recently observed that when we begin to realize that, the only thing to do is to worship him and give ourselves to him for whatever he wants. God’s desire for us gives birth to our desire for him. 

The Liturgy and the Gospel (@OfficialSeedbed)

The team at Seedbed.com was kind enough to publish an essay in which I recount three key reasons I am increasingly drawn to liturgical worship. Here’s an excerpt:
I’ve often thought of my life as having been lived on the edge of the liturgy. I suspect that perspective will resonate with many in the Wesleyan and Methodist tradition. We observe Advent and Lent. The colors on the pulpit and the communion table change with the season. We usually celebrate All Saints Sunday, and sometimes our pastors even preach the lectionary. Elements of liturgical worship are sprinkled throughout our worship life. Many suspect there is more going on, that there is a deeper coherence to the liturgical form of worship, even if we are unsure of what holds it together. We stick close to the side, hesitant to jump out into the middle of the stream, cautious lest we are carried off by a current that we cannot control and do not fully understand. We are unsure of where it will take us. Nevertheless, and despite our caution, some are captured by the inescapable inclination that we stand on the edge of something great, simultaneously terrible and beautiful, and we begin to take small steps forward into deeper water in order that we might drink more fully of the riches of the mystery before us. I offer here a few reflections on the early stages of my own journey from the edge of the liturgical stream into deeper waters. Perhaps these reflections will encourage those who read to join this exploration of the beauty and mystery of the liturgy.
You can read the rest of the post at the Seedbed blog. Here I’d like to point to a couple of resources and add a comment or two as a follow-up to that piece.
The article mentions Bryan Chapell’s book, Christ-Centered Worship, and I want to emphasize how extremely influential this book has been in my understanding of the liturgy. Chapell sets side-by-side the liturgies of the Roman Catholic Church and several Protestant traditions and, without overlooking the differences, shows how the form and structure of the liturgy in these various traditions is shaped by the gospel. This was eye-opening for me. I’ve long understood that the gospel should fill the content of Christian worship; it never occurred to me that the very form and order of worship should be governed by the gospel also, though having now encountered this idea, I can’t imagine a better way. It seems so obvious, so clear, so excellent. How could anyone who loves the good news not desire that the gospel set the pattern and form of the Church’s worship?
Another key book that was recommended to me is Mark Galli’s Beyond Smells and Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy. If you have little or no experience with liturgical worship, then this is the book to read first. Galli’s style is accessible and engaging. You don’t have to hold a theology degree to get what he has to say. He will not only introduce you to the most basic structure of the liturgy, he will also help you begin to appreciate its beauty, relevance, mystery, and majesty.
I’ll finish by saying that it is precisely that which I take to be central to my evangelical identity that drives me toward liturgical worship. The liturgy is all about Christ and him crucified. It goes to work in us by faith to draw us to Christ and to renew us in his image. It is saturated with scripture and, above all, aims ultimately to exalt the holiness, the majesty, and the glory of God. 
What is your experience with liturgical worship? Are there any books or other resources you’ve found particularly helpful? 

Why evangelism? It’s about worship.

Why must we do evangelism? What is the goal? A great many answers to these questions have been put forward. We do it to see people converted, to see them become disciples of Jesus increasingly conformed to his image. We evangelize out of obedience to Christ, love for the lost, and for the glory of God. All of these reasons are good and right. But there’s another word that comes to mind, one that we don’t always hear associated with evangelism. What is that word? It’s worship. Evangelism is about worship.
In the opening chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul celebrates the manner in which the the good news first came to the believers in that city. He says that when he first preached the gospel to them, it came “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1:5). For Paul, the gospel is about the saving work of God through the death and resurrection of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 1:16-17; 1 Cor 1:18-25; 15:1-4). And evangelism, as the announcement of that good news, is a means of grace by which the Holy Spirit works powerfully to produce conviction in the one who hears enabling them to respond with believing obedience to the message they’ve heard. 
But that is not all that Paul celebrates. That means of grace serves a greater end. Near the end of the same chapter he commends the Thessalonians because word about them has spread to other regions. And what were people saying? They were talking about how the Thessalonians had turned “to God from idols” (1:9). Why does Paul get really excited about evangelism? Why did he give his life to evangelizing the Roman Empire? He did it because there were people out there who did not worship the God who raised Jesus from the dead (cf. 1:10). The goal of evangelism is to bring people into the worship of the one living and true God.
One pastor is well-known for saying that, “Mission exists because worship does not.” We can easily, and for the same reasons, say that evangelism exists because worship does not. There are great and untold numbers of people who have not yet come into the life-giving worship of the God made known in Jesus of Nazareth. When they do, our evangelistic imperative will come to an end. But until that day, God has granted his people the privilege of announcing the good news of “the one who loved us and gave himself for us.” This is our joyful duty until that day.