Total providence or total depravity? (John Cassian as a remedy for Augustinian nihilism)

In a recent post, John Meunier writes, “You cannot speak intelligently about Wesleyan theology if you discard the doctrine of Original Sin.” He shares a statement in the Book of Discipline which says, “We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil.” I agree that we need to know we’re sinful in order to recognize our need for Christ. But is the Christian gospel really unintelligible unless we believe that every non-Christian around us is “destitute of holiness and inclined to evil”? I wanted to offer a different way to narrate this, with the help of 4th century saint John Cassian. I ultimately think a doctrine of total providence is more faithful to John Wesley’s vision than total depravity.

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Defining sin for adolescents

I’m on our church’s confirmation retreat. For the last three years, we’ve framed our retreat around a discussion of the three questions you get asked when you join the United Methodist Church in tandem with three verses Ephesians 4:14-16. The first question asks us whether we “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sins,” while Ephesians 4:14 in the NIV talks about humanity being “like infants tossed back and forth between the waves.” So I’ve gone with the metaphor of sin as a “sea of wrath.” This year, a kid was asking but what about sins that the Bible doesn’t talk about, how do we tell what they are? We had just read Galatians 5:19-21 about the works of the flesh. So I said sin is doing things that create “drama” in the negative teenage sense of the word, because I think that’s a much better way of understanding it than “not following the rules.”

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The real battle: demons vs. sacraments

What does the battle between good and evil look like? Who or what evil entities are we supposed to fight against? When I was a young social justice activist, the Bible verse I pulled out for an answer to this question was Ephesians 6:12, where Paul writes, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers.” Instead of seeing the battle of good and evil in terms of concrete, identifiable adversaries on a battlefield, I figured our battle as Christians was against “the system” which victimized oppressors and oppressed alike. I used to get annoyed with “spiritualized” interpretations of this verse, in which normally charismatic Christians argued that Paul was talking about demons and evil spirits and not things like the stock market, the prison industrial complex, etc. However, I have since come to the conclusion that my charismatic friends had a deeper insight than I had appreciated. Continue reading

Deliver us from evil

Sermon preached 2/11-12/2012 at Burke UMC
Text: Matthew 4:1-11

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” I was talking about my sermon topic with my five-year old son Matthew earlier this week. Matthew said, “I like temptation.” I tried to stay calm, and I asked him why. “Because temptation is chocolate,” he said. And I couldn’t argue with him, since that’s usually the word that they use for the most ridiculously decadent dessert on the restaurant menu. Not just chocolate, but chocolate fudge with chocolate chips and chocolate mousse and chocolate ice cream. I generally succumb to temptation quite easily in those circumstances. Continue reading