Recovering our way: Thomas Oden on the Antinomian infection in North American Christianity

tom odenMy continued reflections on pastoral ministry, the church, and what it means to be in ministry in North America led me back to Thomas Oden‘s Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry. I first read this book while still an undergrad at Wheaton College but enrolled with special permission in a graduate level class entitle “Pastoral Ministry,” I believe, with Dr. Timothy Beougher. The class was outstanding and I still remember many things from it, including Dr. Beougher’s own wisdom from experience as a pastor.

Tom Oden is perhaps best known today for his turn from liberal Methodism to classic Christian orthodoxy through his encounter with the church fathers and mothers. He traces this journey in two works, After Modernity…What?: Agenda for Theology and Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements. The fruit of that journey is Oden’s invaluable systematic theology, as well as the renowned Ancient Christian Commentary series.

While returning to this book with one of our staff members at Eastbrook as part of their ordination journey, I encountered this simple, yet vastly important, statement on the antinomian infection within North American Christianity. Here are Oden’s words:

The tradition has used the term antinomianism (from “against law,” or “lawlessness”) to speak of that undernourished view of God’s grace that views the gospel as if it implied no moral response or ethical constraint or norms of redemptive behavior. Antinomianism is the weird, wild, impulsive, unpredictable sleeping partner of much contemporary pastoral care. It mistakes the gospel for license, freedom for unchecked self-actualization, and health for native vitalism. The classical pastoral tradition has struggled mightily against “cheap grace” solutions and premature reassurances in a way that will be reflected on almost every page that follows.

Keep in mind that antinomianism is our own doing. We cannot conveniently claim to be victims of some external, evil, socially alienating force. We have welcomed it, confusing it with genuine Christian liberty. Its modern forms are sexual permissiveness, egocentric romanticism, and a vague taste for anarchy. If its strength and appetite were less, we would bother less about it. But antinomian hopes have been set loose like Mediterranean fruit flies upon both church and ministry by misguided exegetes and well-meaning but unwise theologians (to whom the popular media are insatiably attracted). Now, full circle, they have brought us to an “improved theology” that assumes that God loves us without judgment, that grace opposes obligation, that “oughts” are dehumanizing if not sick, and that the gospel always makes the law questionable. History is now requiring of us that we unlearn much that we have prematurely learned about aborted “Christian freedom.” This freewheeling grace-without-law theology infects many ancillary problems of pastoral practice….

As if having watched too much television, we have become dazed and addled with an oversimplified gospel that most laypersons easily recognize as innocuous-looking pabulum with highly toxic side effects: God loves me not matter what. Nothing is required by this merciful God. Don’t worry about any response to God in order to feel completely OK with yourself and God. Feelings of guilt are considered neurotic. God turns out to be a naive zilch who permissively turns his eyes away when we sin. How strangely different from the Holy One of Amos, Isaiah, and Jesus.

The central tradition of pastoral care prior to this century would have frankly called this talk nonsense. But we suffer fools gladly with a bored smile. How often we are obliged to cherish it as if it were “obviously good” theology. So when we are engaged in pastoral counseling, we withhold all ethical judgments, aping ineffective psychotherapies. When we preach, we avoid any hint of morally evaluative (“preachy”) demeanor and risk no admonition, disavowing the prophetic office. We offer the sacraments as if this were a morally irrelevant act. The classical pastoral tradition requires us to challenge these assumptions.

Murder, Adultery and Theft

Chiseled ThumbI continued our series, “Chiseled,” on the Ten Commandments this weekend at Eastbrook Church by looking at the sixth, seventh and eighth commandments from Exodus 20:13-15.

These are the most brief and bluntly worded commandments of the Decalogue. I brought together Jesus’ parallels to these commandments in the Sermon on the Mount in order to talk about two basic truths:

  1. Our hearts are worse than we think
  2. God’s grace is greater than we understand

The outline and presentation slides for the message are below. You can view the message online here or listen to it via our audio podcast here. Access all the messages from the series here. You can also visit Eastbrook Church on VimeoFacebook, Twitter and Instagram.

This series is part three of an occasional series we are doing from Exodus. You can enjoy the first two parts of this extended series on Exodus here:

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Set Apart

Chiseled ThumbThis weekend at Eastbrook Church, I continued our series, “Chiseled,” on the Ten Commandments by looking at the third and fourth commandments from Exodus 20:7-11.

While we may not immediately see a connection between the command about not misusing God’s name and the command about keeping the Sabbath, they have a lot in common. They are both about keeping something as “set apart,” which is a reflection of God being “set apart,” or holy. So, the message was about having set apart words and set apart time.

The outline for the message is below. You can view the message online here or listen to it via our audio podcast here. Access all the messages from the series here. You can also visit Eastbrook Church on VimeoFacebook, Twitter and Instagram.

This series is part three of an occasional series we are doing from Exodus. You can enjoy the first two parts of this extended series on Exodus here:

Read More »

The Ten

Chiseled ThumbThis weekend at Eastbrook Church, I began our new series on the Ten Commandments entitled “Chiseled.”

The message was really an introduction on how we can see the Ten Commandments as God’s words of life, love, and mission to God’s people. I also spent time reflecting on how we should read the Ten Commandments as followers of Jesus.

The outline for the message is below. You can view the message online here or listen to it via our audio podcast here. You can also visit Eastbrook Church on VimeoFacebook, Twitter and Instagram.

This series is part three of an occasional series we are doing from Exodus. You can listen to the first two parts of this series here:

Read More »

Grace in the Law

Take from me the way of lying; let me find grace through your law. – Psalm 119:29

When I normally think of God’s law, I think of the rules that I need to keep. I think of the Ten Commandments with the “thou shalts…” and “thou shalt nots…” I think of commands and strict parenting. I think of punishment.

But here in this verse we encounter the wonderful grace of God’s’ law. The law is a pathway to grace. First, we find grace in God’s law as it shows us God’s willingness to speak to us. Apart from God’s voice in our lives we would have no knowledge of the truth. Apart from God revealing the way of right living, we would have no guide for our life. God’s voice speaking the words of truth in the law are a gift of grace to us.

We also find grace in God’s law when it reveals our sinfulness. We tend to avoid the topic of our sinfulness. In reality, however, we encounter it everyday, both in ourselves and in others. As the psalmist writes elsewhere: “there is no one who does good” (Psalm 53:1). When God speaks His law and, in doing so, reveals our sin, it is grace. Why? Because apart from that revelation of who we truly are, we would be truly lost.  It is grace of God that reveals our sin.

Lastly (at least for my purposes here), we find grace in God’s law because it leads us to the Savior, Jesus. When we encounter God’s truth (the grace of His voice speaking) and our sinfulness (the grace of His truth about us), we known we need someone to save us. The ultimate grace that we find through the law is that there is One who has perfectly kept that law and yet taken the punishment of our sinfulness upon Himself. Jesus heard, accepted and fulfilled the law in Himself. It is this ultimate grace that we encounter in the law via the righteousness of Christ. “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

May we each find grace in God’s law today.