The Uncle Bob problem

Recently, I had a Christian in passing conversation refer to a relative who was living in active sin. The person said to me that the sinning relative believed in Jesus so should be okay.

“As far as I understand it, if you take Jesus Christ as your savior, you will go to heaven,” this person said.

Most of this was an exercise in easing the Christian’s own anxieties about the fate of the relative, and it was literally a conversation in passing, so I did not respond very deeply or well in the moment.

But the brief exchange has stuck with me. I’m wrestling with how to best re-engage that person. And I find myself wondering how many other people have this view — despite all the preaching that gets done.

The fear that a person we love might be damned to hell is powerful. It is the question I hear Christians wrestle with most often — even more than they wrestle with their own salvation. And the pressure to not face the threat of hell for a child or spouse or parent is powerful. I would venture to say the most common response is to conclude that since we cannot contemplate the damnation of the person we love or a person who has already died, it must not be an option. Surely, God forgives. Surely, at the last second, Uncle Bob repented.

I understand these thoughts. And as a pastor, I am the first to say that I don’t know what the Lord has decided in the case of those who have already died. We all stand before the Lord on the day of resurrection. It is not for me to know or say what Jesus will judge in the case of others.

And yet, I worry about the Uncle Bob theology that spares us the heartache of contemplating hell for those we love. I worry because it does not just slide into antinomianism, it is antinomianism. It discounts what Jesus Christ and the apostles taught regarding holy living and the narrow way of salvation.

All these leads me to wonder how powerful spiritual denial is in our theology. To explain, let me compare it to medicine. We all know people who engage in willful denial about their own health problems. They can be in pain or suffering, but if you suggest they change their ways or go see a doctor, suddenly they tell you that it is not a big deal or that they are really okay. The problem with this, of course, is that cancer and heart disease don’t go away just because we don’t want them to be there.

In spiritual matters, we find it even easier to engage in denial because the consequences of our spiritual maladies are easily ignored. When sin brings trouble and strife to our life, we blame these present fruits of our sin on other factors — mean people, bad luck, coincidence, misunderstanding parents, etc. As for the future fruits of our sin, we deny they exist or talk ourselves into a theory that “God loves us” and “Love wins,” so we don’t have to worry about that.

This is all comforting, but, if the Bible is to be trusted at all, it is fatal.

I am at a loss when it comes to dealing with this fatal disease among our people. Jesus said, “Let those with ears, hear!” We seem to be pretty good at stuffing spiritual ear plugs into our heads.

But the problem seems real to me.

‘Take heed to your doctrine’

I’ve been reading John Fletcher’s Five Checks to Antinomianism this morning. At one time, the Five Checks were as dearly held by Methodist preachers as John Wesley’s sermons. The Checks speak to the problem, rampant today as then, of Christianity that amounts to little more than baptized heathenism. People go by the name Christian, but their lives show little or no change.

Fletcher’s concern was with Antinomianism, a teaching that since we are saved by faith without any works, we should set aside the moral laws of God and/or religious practices such as praying, Scripture study, or visiting the sick. Fletcher wrote that the Methodists and Anglican clergy ran astray when they stopped preaching repentance. When they did not preach to convict men and women of sin and exhort them to “take up their cross” daily and to live in conformity with the law, they nurtured shallow-rooted and false Christians who could well be described as whitewashed tombs.

His word to clergy was to “take heed to your doctrine.”

Let it be Scripturally evangelical: give not the children’s bread unto dogs; comfort not people that do not mourn. When you should give emetics do not administer cordials, and by that means strengthen the hands of the slothful and unprofitable servant. I repeat once more, warp not to Antinomianism, and in order to this, take heed, O! take heed to your doctrine.

These words stand out to me this day, in part, because we lectionary preachers will be spending the next two weeks with John the Baptist. Here was a preacher not afraid to step on the pious toes of his congregation. His boldness grew out of his conviction that people’s very lives were at stake. His words do not show up in many Christmas carols: repent, brood of vipers, unquenchable fire.

So now as Christmas approaches, how do we preach from his words? At no time of the year is the impulse to please people and churn up warm feelings stronger. People crave “cordials.” Do we give them what they crave? They will like us if we do. But is our task to please people?

Early Methodists were a mess, too

Do we sometimes look back at early Methodism with rose-colored glasses? Do we see cadres of spiritual green berets out knocking the devil on his hind parts at every turn? Do we wonder why our congregations can’t be as zealous as those early Methodist societies?

A passage in John Fletcher’s Five Checks to Antinomianism might set some of this in perspective. In defending John Wesley’s preaching and teaching about the necessity of good works and continual seeking after righteousness, Fletcher points out that the Methodist societies were prone to outbreaks of antinomianism — the belief that since Christians were justified and sanctified they no longer needed to worry about following the laws of God. Fletcher provides one specific example of what he writes was a problem that demanded Wesley’s constant attention:

In one of his societies, not many miles form my parish, a married man, who professed being in a state of justification and sanctification, growing wise above what is written, despised, his brethren as legalists, and his teachers as persons not clear in the Gospel. He instilled his principles into a serious young woman; and what was the consequence? Why they talked about “finished salvation in Christ,” and “the absurdity of perfection in the flesh,” till a perfect child was conceived and born; and, to save appearances, the mother swore it to a travelling man that cannot be heard of. Thus to avoid legality, the plunged into hypocrisy, fornication, adultery, perjury, and the depth of Ranterism.

I had to look up what Ranterism was. That was interesting, as was the realization that those storied ancestors of ours in the early Methodist societies could make just as much a mess of things as the people in our congregations.

What the heck is Antinomianism?

My last post brought up the word “Antinomianism,” a church word if there ever was one. The word means “opposed to the law.” Here is how the Methodist conference notes, recorded in John Wesley’s collected works, defines the term.

Q. 18. Have we not also leaned towards Antinomianism?
A. We are afraid we have.
Q. 19. What is Antinomianism?
A. The doctrine which makes void the law through faith.
Q. 20. What are the main pillars hereof?
A. (1.) That Christ abolished the moral law.
(2.) That therefore Christians are not obliged to observe it.
(3.) That one branch of Christian liberty is, liberty from obeying the commandments of God.
(4.) That it is bondage to do a thing because it is commanded, or forbear it because it is forbidden.
(5.) That a believer is not obliged to use the ordinances of God, or to do good works.
(6.) That a Preacher ought not to exhort to good works; not unbelievers, because it is hurtful; not believers, because it is needless.

I do not know whether it is fair to say United Methodists are Antinomians in theory, but we sure have a lot of practical Antinomians. In plain words, we have a lot of people who act as if the commands of the Father and Son to do certain things and not do other things are not only optional but also unrelated to Christianity.

And here is the honest thing. I feel within me a great urge toward this very spirit. Rebellion against the commands of God is as old as the garden, and alive within me.

So, I think this teaching of the Methodist conference is just as on point today. We need to be vigilant against the charms of Antinomianism. We also need to give it a name that makes sense to people today, but that is another matter.

‘A thunderbolt for Antinomianism’

I noticed an interesting thing while preparing my sermon based on John 15:9-17 not long ago. In looking around for resources, I browsed through John Piper’s sermons on the Book of John. It is interesting that the only verse from this section that Piper preaches on is the 16th, which speaks of Jesus choosing the disciples so they will bear fruit. It works for his Calvinist framework.

But, in picking that verse, he leaves out other verses that call some aspects of TULIP Calvinism into question.

Here is one such key verse:

If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. (John 15:10)

Or this one:

You are my friends if you do what I command. (John 15:14)

Notice the conditional “if” in each verse. Jesus is saying that remaining in his love depends on our actions. Perhaps that cannot be pushed far enough to challenge “once saved, always saved,” but it does raise pretty thorny questions for that doctrine. And it is a hammer through a window for those who want to argue that works do not matter in the life of faith.

As John Wesley noted in his notes on the New Testament in writing about verse 14:

Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you – On this condition, not otherwise. A thunderbolt for Antinomianism! Who then dares assert that God’s love does not at all depend on man’s works

Jesus commands us to love each other and tells the disciples directly that if they wish to remain in his love they must follow his command.

Anyone who wants to argue that Jesus does not require actions of us or anyone who says we can never fall back into darkness once we have been in the light needs to contend with John 15.

As a Wesleyan, Arminian Christian, I had no qualms about or struggles with preaching those verses, well, no more struggle than every other Sunday.

Watson: Here comes the potentate

David Lowes Watson argues that antinomianism — disconnecting holy living from Christian salvation — is alive and well in the church.

In its most popular form, it propagates the Christian life as a relationship with God, accomplished for us by a Christ who suffered and died at a conveniently remote time and place in history; a relationship so secure and yet so free that discipleship becomes merely a matter of following one’s instincts, pursuing one’s preferences and, in response to the occasional twinge of conscience, indulging in minor generosities out of major resources. Discipleship becomes the exercise of personal options that can be worked out with Jesus on a purely individual basis, in short, a Christian lifestyle fraught with the multifarious ingenuities of self-deception.

(From a chapter in The Portion of the Poor: Good News to the Poor in the Wesleyan Tradition)

Watson argues that the antidote to this antinomian tendency is to preach and teach Christ in all his offices. Watson argues that the evangelism of our day too often preaches nothing but Christ a priest who atones for sin. This obscures Christ the prophet and Christ the potentate (a word Watson uses rather than “king”). It offers only the benefits of Christian life and none of the obligations. This, Watson writes, sets the stage for a flaccid discipleship.

First impressions count for a very great deal, and when persons are introduced to Christian discipleship primarily through its benefits, it is difficult, markedly difficult, to introduce them to its obligations at a later date.

Watson, in the end, calls for a robust evangelical preaching that features the three-fold work of Christ.

And when that message turns from words of loving encouragement to words of warning it puts primary emphasis not on the priest or prophet, but on the potentate, the ruler of all whose wrath at the treatment of his children cannot be forever put off.

Our evangelistic word of warning, therefore, is not so much the priestly admonition to repent of sin, personal and social, important though that may be, nor yet the prophetic exhortation to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, important though that may be also, but above all the royal summons to prepare for audience with a wrathful parental potentate whose children have been neglected and starved and beaten and slaughtered for millennia. On that day of God’s anger, we shall all tremble for a long, long time.

I’ve not done full justice to Watson’s chapter — I left out a full description of his treatment of the prophetic work of Christ, for instance. It is an engaging and thought-provoking discussion of the three offices of Christ, though, which is a topic all Wesleyans should find time to consider.