How Odd of God–our listeners have been graciously elected by God to be for God


How-Odd-of-GodMy book, How Odd of God, is my attempt to show the relevance of Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election for today’s preachers. Here is an excerpt from that book that gives you an indication of the encouragement and critique I hope to give contemporary preachers:
1.  God is the primary agent of preaching. (See previous post.)

2. Our listeners have been graciously elected by God to be for God.

After Judas, we preachers ought never to be surprised that some obstinately refuse to listen or that others startlingly hear. It’s easier to believe in our own election than to believe in that of others. Therefore a great challenge of ministry is indefatigably to believe that those to whom we speak are those whom God has elected to hear. They are not whom I would have called to be the Body of Christ were I doing the calling. They are God’s idea of a fit kingdom, not mine. Part of the challenge of loving God is to love those whom God loves.

However, a joy of the preaching life is delight when someone hears, someone who, by all accounts, should not. It’s then that we experience anew election, the inscrutable mystery of God’s gracious choice, and exclaim with our ecclesiastical ancestors, “Has God’s salvation gone even to the Gentiles?” (Acts 28:28). To be honest, it is frustrating when an untrained layperson is elected for some stunning insight that God has not given me, the preacher who thinks I ought to be the custodian of theological discernment!

Our listeners are a mixed bag, some of whom know the truth that, “God so loved the world that God gave . . .” (John 3:16), and others continue to assume that the contest between them and God continues. If God the Father must sacrifice God the Son or make life unpleasant for us preachers through the prodding of God the Holy Spirit, God will be their God and they will be God’s people, because God is determined to get back what by rights belongs to God. Let preachers pray for the courage to take our congregations’ rejection less seriously than we take God’s embrace of them in Jesus Christ. Their hostility to the truth who is Jesus Christ is no serious contender.

We preachers often complain that our hearers aren’t sincerely listening, or that they are biblically illiterate, or theologically malformed. All of this is true, of course. However, such disparagement of our congregations is beside the point in light of the doctrine that by the sheer grace of God they are elected: “Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6), not for those who are biblically informed and spiritually astute. Thus election disciplines our preaching to rejoice in what God has done and is doing rather than bemoan the inability and ineptitude of our congregations.

By implication, if people do not hear, it may be because God has not (yet) gotten to them or (yet) given them grace to hear. Barth taught that the only difference between the Christian and the non-Christian was noetic. If we believe, it’s grace, gift. We have received the news. When faced with rejection, we preachers will want to resist the temptation to lapse into apologetics—taking disbelief too seriously. We cannot manufacture more palatable revelation for those who have not (yet) received the real thing.

Rather than acting as if disbelief is decisive and conclusive, we will want to talk more of God’s gracious election than of the disbeliever’s rejection, humbly, patiently, expectantly to testify; convincing and converting them is God’s self-assignment.

Election is a tremendous shove toward truly evangelical preaching. The sweeping scope of God’s election could rescue evangelicals from the suffocating clutches of our culture’s subjectivity and conditional salvation. Mark Galli, chiding fellow evangelicals for dismissing Barth because of his alleged “universalism,” speaks of the evangelical joy arising from Barth’s thought on election:

Jeff McSwain was a Young Life leader for years before being forced to resign because of his Barthian views. But he remains in youth ministry, and continues to preach the gospel of God’s universal redemption and the need for a response of repentance and faith.

McSwain began rethinking his approach to ministry as a result of wrestling with the views of Arminians and Five-Point Calvinists. . . . For Calvinists, to say that it is our faith that makes Christ’s death effectual is to say that salvation rests on our shoulders. It also smacks of relativism: Salvation is not true until we believe it.

McSwain argues that like Arminians, Barthians believe that Jesus loves everyone he created and that he died on the cross for everyone. Like Calvinists, he says Barthians believe that the atoning work of Christ actually accomplished reconciliation and forgiveness for everyone for whom Christ died. He concludes:

Instead of dismissing Barth, it would behoove evangelicals to consider the possibility that Barth’s theology is the most evangelical of all. . . . With a dynamic theology of the Holy Spirit to go along with his robust theology of the cross, Barth knifes through the Gordian Knot of Arminianism and five-point Calvinism, and encourages evangelists to consider a third way, a way of making bold and inclusive claims upon the life of every hearer. . . .
McSwain notes a comment by Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, . . . teaching on 2 Corinthians 5:19, . . . Rayburn said, “Every single person in the whole wide world is now reconciled to God. [. . .] It’s been true for nearly two thousand years. I wonder what they [high school kids] would do if they knew it. . . . God has reconciled us, all of us, it’s already done.” . . .

[W]hen it comes to presenting the gospel to those who don’t believe, McSwain says, “Like Rayburn and the Apostle Paul, Barth’s proclamation of the gospel began at the starting point of theological belonging. [i]

How Odd of God–God is the primary agent of preaching

How-Odd-of-GodMy book, How Odd of God, is my attempt to show the relevance of Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election for today’s preachers. Here is an excerpt from that book that gives you an indication of the encouragement and critique I hope to give contemporary preachers:

God is the primary agent of preaching.

Preaching is a fitting response to an interventionist, active, initiating God. Our relationship with God is based upon God’s gracious choice to be for us and to speak with us through sermons of preachers. God’s eternal decision to be God for us is not only revelation’s substance but also its agent.

Preaching is not established by method or rhetorical technique but by the grace and mercy of God. Homiletical obsession with rhetoric appears to be waning; the best recent books on preaching are unashamedly theological. Interesting sermons begin in the conviction that God is revealed to be other than we expected. God is Emmanuel, God reiterating God’s eternal, gracious choice to be for us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our proclamation is driven, not by our desire to be heard, but rather by God’s determination—testified throughout Scripture and fully revealed in Jesus Christ—to be God With Us.

Praise characterizes much of Christian worship because the Christian life is responsive to something good that God has done. One need not be able to report having had the experience of election to be elected. Pietism and liberalism find it tough to beat the rap that their theology is merely a subjective claim about us and only secondarily a claim about God. The God we meeting in Jesus Christ is so against our natural inclination and imagination that it is unlikely we could have thought him up ourselves.

Moralism, the bane of homiletics in my church family, is defeated by God’s election of us to which we make little contribution. When the gospel is reduced to something that we must think, feel, believe, or do, the gospel is warped beyond recognition. Election is a constant reminder to us preachers that we preach not in order to take our listeners somewhere they aren’t but to announce where, by God’s gracious election, they are and shall be.



Discussion of Professor Will Willimon’s New Book How Odd of God

Discussion of Professor Will Willimon’s New Book ‘How Odd of God’

Wednesday, November 4, 2015 – 12:15pm to 1:15pm
0015 Westbrook Building
Will Willimon at

Duke Divinity School will hold a public discussion on Professor Will Willimon’s new book, “How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching,” which was published in October by Westminster John Knox Press. He is a professor of the practice of Christian ministry at the school.

Stephen Chapman, associate professor of Old Testament at the school, will make a response to and lead a discussion of the book, which looks at preaching through the lens of Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election. Willimon also will make comments.

No registration required.

To order the book,  click on



How Odd of God, excerpt–The Calling of St Matthew


This week Westminster/John Knox Press publishes my most recent book on preaching, How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching. The book is my attempt to give encouragement and nourishment to my fellow preachers through the lens of Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election. Here is an excerpt from that book:

Throughout my ministry, I have kept a single painting ever before me. A print hangs over my desk even now, authorizing my work, guarding my faith, rationalizing why I am here rather than elsewhere. It is Michelangelo Caravaggio’s “The Calling of Saint Matthew.” Caravaggio completed this painting in 1600 for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.

Caravaggio was rumored to be quite a scoundrel in his public and private life, a notorious brawler and profligate. His subject, Matthew, was a tax collector, among the worst occupations in first-century Judea. Thus we have a sinner’s portrait of a fellow sinner encountered by the Savior of sinners, only sinners. See Matthew to the left, hunched over his ill-gotten gain, so absorbed in his loot that he fails to notice the intruder who thrusts his hand into the dark room. Caravaggio required defense by his ecclesiastical patron Cardinal Francesco del Monte because he dared to portray the calling of Matthew as a contemporary event that happens now in a dark room in Rome. Matthew is surrounded by a group of Italian dandies in seventeenth-century fine attire. A bearded companion looks toward Christ and gestures toward Matthew, “Who? Him?”

The only light in the painting comes from behind Christ, possibly from the door he has opened when he disturbs the tax collector’s den. Caravaggio has depicted the moment of vocation, the scandal of Christ selecting a scoundrel for discipleship. Christ’s hand is thrust into the room, penetrating the group of preoccupied Roman money-grabbers. His outstretched hand is a quote from Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel. Get it? We are witnessing not simply the vocation of an individual to discipleship. Vocation is repetition of Creation, a whole new world, light shining in the darkness in the election of an unlikely disciple.

Pope Francis came to Rome as a young man and often visited the chapel in order to contemplate the painting. The young priest in formation exclaimed, “This is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.” I first saw this painting as a twenty-year-old, similarly stunned by the thought that, wonder of wonders, Christ might be calling someone like me to become a preacher. I’ve never grown out of the wonder of that afternoon in Rome when I looked upon this painting and, as Christians so often do, shamelessly applied this Bible story to myself and switched places with Matthew, a sinner on whom the Lord had turned his searing, demanding, electing gaze.

Caravaggio has given more powerful testimony in paint than I can hope to do with words in a book. He has depicted the event of election, the outrage and mystery of a God who calls sinners, the wonder of a Savior who must keep reminding, “You didn’t choose me; I chose you.” (John 15:16).



Episode 5: Will Willimon

William H. Willimon is professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School. He recently retired after serving eight years as bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.

In this episode, Will and Matt discuss the preacher’s temptation to close the gap between the Bible’s strange claims and the modern expectations of our congregations—when the wise course may be to open this gap up, play with it, stretch it. They also talk about following a really good preacher into a new church and adopting elements of what worked for that person.

To listen, click on either:







Daniel Darling’s The Original Jesus, reviewed in Christianity Today

The Original Jesus: Trading the Myths We Create for the Savior Who Is, Daniel Darling, foreword by Russell Moore, Baker Books, 2015.

You know the old saw that God created humans in his own image and we have spent ages returning the compliment. How ironic that Jesus, who came to change us, has from the first been changed by us into a more congenial idol. Idolatry is the malady that Daniel Darling tackles in The Original Jesus. At the first we dressed up Jesus in a royal robe and placed a crown upon his head just before we nailed him to a cross. Today we continue to remake the original Jesus into a “Jesus” who is less threatening and demanding than “the Savior Who Is.”

Darling takes deadly aim at a score of popular but fake Saviors: Guru Jesus, Red-Letter Jesus, Braveheart Jesus, Dr. Phil Jesus, Prosperity Jesus and more. No matter how biblically faithful you are in your thinking about Jesus, Darling will snag you with at least one of his pseudo Christs. In his usually gentle, sometimes funny, always astute skewering of au currant myths about our Lord, Darling’s neo-Calvinism shows. Reformer John Calvin was convinced that idolatry is our root sin and that the human imagination is a factory for idols. Clear biblical thinking casts down our self-fabricated godlets. That’s what Darling does.

This book would be helpful reading for any North American Christian who is willing to have his or her Christology critiqued and corrected. Church study groups, if they dared, would find the short, fast-paced, hard-hitting chapters great catalysts for debate. At various points in my reading of Darling I reacted with, “Hey, I really like worshipping that Jesus. I’ve been personally blessed by the Jesus you are attacking. How dare you?” To which I hear Darling reply, “Gotcha!”

Anyone who sets out to correct our false, self-serving conceptions of Christ has got his work cut out for him. The challenge is not only that lousy Christology is rampant among us but also that the critic presumes that he knows the much more correct, biblically defensible, sure-fire original Jesus. It’s easy enough to knock down as biblically indefensible Joel Osteen’s Prosperity Jesus, or the goofy, hairy-chested Braveheart Jesus. But Darling tends to get tangled up in his own Jesus myths when he goes after more subtle heresies like American Jesus or Post-Church Jesus. In those chapters he is less theologically thoughtful and more personally revealing of the limits of his own Christology while he presumes to correct ours.

A favorite old liberal strategy is to attempt to reduce living, lordly, complicated biblical, resurrected Jesus to some abstracted essence, an essential core, a set of propositions. Liberals attempted to go back to the original, historical, real Jesus, peeling away all the pious accretions of the ages. While that’s the sort of reductionism Darling justifiably abhors in the Red Letter Jesus, he does the same in a book claiming to have zeroed in on the Original Jesus. Doesn’t John 1 say that Jesus’ origins are in eternity, going all the way back before Creation?

While Darling’s Original Jesus is divine savior he is not so much the Second Person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit doesn’t make much of a showing in this book). We have attempted to cut Jesus down to our size, making him into a self-help guru or enlisting him into our pet political causes. Agreed. But in Darling’s definition of Jesus, Christ’s work appears to be limited mostly to salvation of us individuals from our sins, leaving us unchallenged politically, economically, racially, etc.

Probably mine is a predictably Wesleyan prejudice but I didn’t hear enough from Darling about Jesus as teacher, master of disciples, healer, rabble-rouser, scathing critic of the rich, and lover of enemies. In short, Darling fails to offer a picture of Jesus that’s half as rich Scripture. Where’s the Jesus who said not, “Believe correct things about me,“ but rather, “Follow me!”?

The church has done some rich reflecting about Jesus as Incarnate, Trinity, Lord of the Church, eschatological Lamb, actively revealing subject, thinking provoked by and faithful to the Scripture that Darling merely cuts and pastes to bolster his arguments. When you worship a Savior as complex and true, as rich as the divine/human Jesus, theological reflection is demanded. Scriptural citations alone, abstracted from here and there, are insufficient to talk about Jesus then or now.

I liked best Darling’s critique of the overly simplified, ripped-out-of-full-biblical context, Red Letter Jesus. Unfortunately, along the way, Darling lapses into saying, in effect, that, though Jesus is the Son of God, he is subordinate to Scripture. I was forced to ask, What about the living, active, revealing Christ now? I love the way that Darling allows Scripture to keep Jesus as difficult and demanding as he is, yet one has the nagging suspicion that Darling wants to limit Jesus to Scripture rather than worshipping Jesus as Lord even of Scripture. At least some of the questionable characterizations that Darling pillories believe that Jesus is relevant to us here and now.

I’m sure that Jesus would make a way to have us, even if we had not been given Scripture. Jesus is not only the Bible’s subject but also revelation’s agent. People met the original Jesus and were forced to ask, “Who is this?” Theology wasn’t something that occurred centuries later as folk distorted the obvious, self-evident Jesus.   From day one, ordinary people were forced into complex theological rumination because of what Jesus said and did. The original Jesus didn’t assert obvious truth. Darling stresses that we must accept Scripture, all of it, as from Jesus, but doesn’t give us a Jesus at work in us and through Scripture. Jesus, the church has always taught, is a speaking, revealing subject rather than simply the object of a reliable historical record.

As I said, it’s tough to defend the assertion that you have the absolutely original Jesus. Most of us are more sure that Jesus has got us rather than that we have got him.

Darling seems not to want to offend his targets. Fine, Christian charity is a noble virtue. But who are these heretics who advocate for a Braveheart Jesus or the inane American Jesus? His book would have been strengthened with more citations from the specific fellow Christians whom he is presuming to correct. Is there really someone out there who preaches “Jesus is my buddy?”

Go ahead and call his name and nail him like you nailed Donald Miller.

It’s fine with me for Darling to attack Left Wing Jesus, though I can’t imagine he is much troubled by left wingers among his fellow Southern Baptists. Where was his chapter on Right Wing Jesus? Hard pressed to find any Scripture to bolster his good old American defense of capitalism, private property rights, hard work, and personal freedom, he simply asserted conventional conservative political wisdom. And where does Jesus praise marriage and family as wonderful pastimes? Oh, that Jesus is too challenging to our confidence that we’ve got the original Jesus.

As I said, anyone who claims to possess the real, scripturally certified Jesus and charges that others cling to a fake Jesus leaves himself open to fellow Christians who, because of Scripture, are quick to counter with, “But what about the Jesus who said…?”

Will Willimon is a popular author, United Methodist Bishop (retired), and Professor of the Practice of Theology, Duke Divinity School.