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Wright Wednesdays: Part 8

Justification and Romans

Wright’s seventh chapter focuses on justification in Romans.  Among other things, “part of its aim is to challenge, at several levels, the ideological foundations of Caesar’s empire” (177).  If we had not made “‘justification’ cover the entire sweep of soteriology from grace to glory…,” we would have recognized Paul’s central point: “God’s own ‘righteousness,’ unveiled, as in a great apocalypse, before the watching world” (178).

According to the author, the old perspective misreads Romans in several ways:

1. 3:27-31 “comes unglued at its crucial joint, the ē at the start of Romans 3:29.”

2. Abraham in chapter 4 is treated as an ‘example’ or ‘illustration,’ and the point of the chapter is thereby completely missed, resulting in the oddity of placing within parentheses phrases in Romans 4:16-17, which are actually the main point of the whole discussion.

3.  With Romans 9-11 itself, even when Paul structures his argument by questions about the word of God having failed, about God being unjust, about God’s rights as judge, about his revelation of wrath and power, and then about his mercy (Romans 9:6, 14, 19, 22, 23)—all of which, to the eye trained in Scripture and Jewish tradition, should say, ‘This is all about God’s own righteousness’—the point is simply not seen, let alone grasped.  Such is the effect of the late-medieval blinkers still worn within the post-Reformation traditions.

4.  Then, of course, Romans 10:6-13 falls as well.  If one is not thinking about God’s faithfulness to the covenant, one might well miss—and the vast majority of exegetes have missed!—the central significance of Deuteronomy 30 within its own biblical context and within the re-readings of Scripture in Paul’s day, and the way in which that passage, and the various second-temple re-readings of it, including Paul’s, all point to the foundational belief that God is faithful to the covenant and will therefore bring about its renewal at last.

5.  Finally, the climactic statements about God in Romans 11 (see Romans 11:22, 32, and of course 33-36) still fail to alert those whose minds are steeped in the theology of a different age to the fact, which even the verbal statistics will tell you, that the primary thing it is saying about God is that he is the God of faithful, just, covenantal love, that this has been unveiled in the gospel message about Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen Messiah, and that through this gospel message, and the radical unveiling of God’s covenant justice and faithfulness, God’s saving power is going out into the world, and will not rest until creation itself is set free from its slavery to corruption and decay and shares in the liberty of the glory of God’s children” (179-180).

The link between Romans 2:27 and chapter 9-11 is key for Wright.  All roads lead back to Romans 2: “The journey from Romans 5:1-5 to Romans 8:31-39 is also the journey from Romans 3:21-31 back to Romans 2:1-16” (225).  He does not think that Paul is talking about noble pagans when he speaks of Gentiles “without the law” nevertheless following its precepts written on the conscience.  Rather, Wright believes that Gentile Christians are intended.  Those who actually fulfill the law will be justified.  The future judgment according to works (182-193).  “Possession of Torah…will not be enough; it will be doing it that counts (whatever ‘doing it’ is going to mean)” (184).

This “doing” is to be taken seriously, and at this point Wright takes a swipe again at the “old perspective,” as if the “let go and let God” teaching of Wesleyan groups (especially Keswick) were one with Luther and Calvin: “And if, as a late-flowering but spurious post-Reformation romanticism and existentialism has conditioned people to think, we simply ‘wait for the Spirit to do it within us,’ so that we only think it right to do that which ‘feels natural,’ we have missed the point entirely and are heading for serious trouble” (193).

“The point of future justification is then explained like this.  The verdict of the last day will truly reflect what people have actually done” (191).  He says that boast of “the Jew” in Romans 2 is not that they have and follow Torah, but, “Well, but I am the solution to this problem” (195).  [What problem?  They didn’t see the salvation of the Gentiles as a problem in the first place!]  “He is not here demonstrating that all Jews are sinful.  He is demonstrating that the boast of Israel, to be the answer to the world’s problem, cannot be made good” (195). However, there are several questions that might be raised against this interpretation.  First, how does it fit with the conclusion to this argument in 3:19, namely, that every mouth is shut, the whole world is guilty before God, and there will therefore be no justification by works?  Second, why are the Gentiles whom Paul has in mind described as idolaters and engaged openly in perverse immorality?  All along, the examples Paul cites concern transgression of the moral law, not the ceremonies.  Third, how could Paul mean that Gentile Christians do not have the written law, but only the moral law written on the conscience?  Fourth, “doing the works” prescribed in the law cannot be limited to the ceremonies (boundary markers), since Paul’s polemic is against those who have kept these—and gloried in them!  Finally, Wright says that Romans 2:27 is speaking of “Christian Gentiles, even though Paul has not yet developed that category” (190), but why would he begin an argument by employing a category he had not yet developed?

Wright also appeals to 1 Corinthians 3:12-15.  The context is the Corinthian penchant for schism based on personalities.  Paul seems to be saying that we are to await the last day, when the quality of the materials used (viz., the message and methods used in gospel ministry) will be tested and true churches will be revealed as such.  However, Wright understands this passage as a more general reference to a final judgment based on works (185).  The amount of material on future judgment can’t be swept aside, he says (186), as if this were a legitimate criticism of the “old perspective.”

This present-and-future justification motif highlights the single plan of a worldwide family promised to Abraham.  Thus, Romans 9-11 picks up where Romans 2:27 left off, according to Wright.  God has remained faithful to his covenant, despite all appearances to the contrary, precisely by making faith in Christ rather than circumcision that basis of covenant membership.  Though ingenious (and, I would argue, containing important points present in chapters 9-11), the connection to 2:27 seems hermeneutically odd to me.  Whatever its relative place in the same epistle, Romans 2:27 is part of an argument that leads naturally from the “thesis statement” (the gospel as the only power of God unto salvation for everyone, Jew or Gentile, 1:16), to the indictment of Gentiles (2:12-29) and Jews alike (3:1-20), with the conclusion that no one can be justified in the present or in the future on the basis of works, but only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed to the ungodly (3:21-8:39). Has God revoked his plan?  Not at all, Paul answers in chapters 9-11.  Justification has always been by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone—however the revelation of this gospel has been more fully unveiled in the new covenant.  Nevertheless, Israel’s national status in the land was conditioned on strict obedience to Torah.  It is this confusion of covenants that Paul is always working to untangle (especially in Galatians) and the failure to distinguish them that the new perspective continues to overlook.  This in no way invites Wright’s sweeping claim, “Of course, as the literature shows abundantly, summaries of the ‘doctrine of justification’ down the years have regularly answered the question [of God’s revoking his plan] with ‘yes.’  God will revoke his plan!  Torah will be set aside as a failed first attempt to rescue humans!” (199)

Romans 3, then, introduces the need for a faithful Israel, since the nation had been exiled for its sins.  “It was not so much that ‘God needed a sinless victim,’ though in sacrificial terms that is no doubt true as well, as that ‘God needed a faithful Israelite,’ to take upon himself the burden of rescuing the world from its sin and death” (204).  Once more, one wonders why Wright has trouble with the doctrine of Christ’s active obedience, since its intent is to make this point.  “[Ernst] Käsemann was desperately anxious to prevent Paul from having anything to do with the ‘covenant,’ lest his theology collapse back into Jewish particularism.  He nevertheless conceded that 3:25-26 certainly looked like a Christian version of Jewish covenantal theology.”  He recalls an angry Lutheran complaining to Fortress Press for publishing such an obvious piece of Reformed theology: viz., covenant (205).

He repeats that “‘righteous’ here does not mean ‘morally virtuous.’  It means, quite simply, that the court has found in your favor.

That is why the declarative verb dikaioō, ‘to justify,’ can be said to indicate the creation of something, the making of something.  But, as we noted earlier, the thing that is made is not a moral character, not an infused virtue, but a status…Notice what has not happened, within this lawcourt scene.  The judge has not clothed the defendant with his own ‘righteousness.’  That doesn’t come into it.  Nor has he given the defendant something called ‘the righteousness of the Messiah’—or, if he has, Paul has not even hinted at it.  What the judge has done is to pass judicial sentence on sin, in the faithful death of the Messiah, so that those who belong to the Messiah, though in themselves ‘ungodly’ and without virtue or merit, now find themselves hearing the lawcourt verdict, ‘in the right.’  And the point, putting covenant and lawcourt together, is that this is what the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world was designed to do!…Here again is the truth to which, at its best, the doctrine of ‘imputed righteousness’ can function as a kind of signpost.  God has ‘put forth’ Jesus so that, through his faithful death, all those who belong to him can be regarded as having died.  God raised him up so that, through his vindication, all those who belong to him can be regarded as being themselves vindicated (206).

Why does Wright object to the language of believers being “clothed” with Christ’s righteousness?  He has already spoken of Philippians 3 referring to Paul’s experience as a Jew, being “clothed with righteousness,” demonstrated by Torah-righteousness, so why not the obverse?  And if Jesus had done what Israel (and the world “in Adam”) failed to do, namely to fulfill the commission entailed by the law, even to the point of bearing their curse, why can’t this be called “the imputation of Christ’s righteousness,” especially since “impute/credit” and its cognates are actually used, along with images of “clothing”?

Perplexity concerning Wright’s critique mounts as he comes close to stating the classic covenantal perspective: “‘The faithfulness of the Messiah’ is, actually, a way of stressing—as one might have thought any good Reformed theologian would welcome!—the sovereignty of God and the unshakeable, rock-bottom reality, within the events of justification and salvation, not of the faith of those being justified, but of the representative and therefore substitutionary death of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus” (207).  Faith isn’t the basis, but the badge (207-209).  “What becomes of boasting?  It is excluded” (Rom 3:27). “The ‘boast’ in question is the ‘boast’ of Romans 2:17-20: the ‘boast’ that Israel would take its place within the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world, the boast not merely of superiority (and perhaps salvation) because of Torah-possession (and the attempt at Torah-keeping) but of a superior calling within God’s purposes.”  “’Boasting excluded—by what Torah?  A Torah of works?  No—but by the Torah of faith’ (Romans 3:27).  Who are God’s people?  They are those who keep the Torah—but whose Torah-keeping consists of faith” (211).  “Nomos” here as limited to “Torah” is questionable.  Plus, what does this do to the earlier argument that Torah-keeping consists of Torah-keeping and the final justification is according to works?

Again he repeats: “‘make righteous’ here does not mean ‘make them morally upright or virtuous’ but rather ‘make them ‘people-in-whose-favor-the-verdict-has-been-given.’

The idea that what sinners need is for someone else’s ‘righteousness’ to be credited to their account simply muddles up the categories, importing with huge irony into the equation the idea that the same tradition worked so hard to eliminate, namely the suggestion that, after all, ‘righteousness’ here means ‘moral virtue,’ ‘the merit acquired from lawkeeping’ or something like that.  We don’t have any of that, said the Reformers, so we have to have someone else’s credited to us, and ‘justification’ can’t mean ‘being made righteous,’ as though God first pumps a little bit of moral virtue into us and then generously regards the part as standing for the whole.  No, replies Paul, you’ve missed the point; you haven’t gone far enough in eliminating the last traces of medieval understanding.  ‘Righteousness’ remains the status that you possess as a result of the judge’s verdict…’Imputed righteousness’ is a Reformation answer to a medieval question, in the medieval terms which were themselves part of the problem (213).

At this point, Wright returns to the category of future justification.  The point of Romans 2:1-16 is this: “…justified in the future on the basis of the entire life!”  “The judge has declared the verdict before the evidence has been produced!” (emphasis added).  But then, one might ask, what becomes of a judgment based on works, on the basis of an entire life?  Justification can be rendered in the present on the basis of “the extraordinary, unprecedented and unimagined fact of the resurrection itself coming forward into the present” (215).  It seems that Wright plays with two conflicting ideas: present justification (according to faith) hopes for a corresponding future justification (according to works) vs. the future justification is brought forward into the present: the very same verdict, already announced and guaranteed.  God’s purpose for Israel was fulfilled finally in the Messiah, his Son in whom he is well-pleased.  “And what God said about Jesus in that moment, he said and says about all those who belong to Jesus the Messiah” (215).

Romans 4 is the lodestar for Wright on justification, as it is for Paul.  “The point of Romans 4 is, in any case, not simply about ‘how people get justified,’” but (as in Gal 3) the question, “who are the family of Abraham?” (217).  But look at the construction of Paul’s argument in Romans 4: “Therefore, it is by faith, so that it might be in accordance with grace, so that the promise might be confirmed for all the seed, not only that which is from the law but also that which is from the faith of Abraham…”  Doesn’t Paul’s own construction of the argument suggest that the “single family of Abraham” is the benefit of justification rather than justification itself?   Wright adds, “Literally, more or less word by word, the sentence [4:1] reads, ‘What then shall we say to have found Abraham our forefather according to the flesh?’”  But Wright suggests that “What shall we say that Abraham found [in this matter]” “is an odd way of saying even what the normal theory wants Paul to have said” (218). Wright translates, “What then shall we say?  Have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?” (219).  But this makes no sense with the next sentence: “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has a boast—but not in the presence of God.”

Wright adds, “What follows in Romans 4:4-8 makes it crystal clear that ‘reckoned it as righteousness’ means that although Abraham was ‘ungodly,’ a ‘sinner,’ God did not count this against him” (220).  And the promise “was not, as the old perspective might have imagined, ‘the promise that his sins would be forgiven and that he would go to heave when he died.’  It was rather, that he would have a family as numerous as the stars in the heavens (Genesis 15:5)” (220).  However, we may ask why David and the forgiveness of sins in the next breath? Wright simply explains away 4:4-5 in another sweeping polemic:

The brief discussion in Romans 4:4-5 about people ‘earning a reward’ (or not as the case may be) does not mean that Paul is after all talking about proto-Pelagianism, self-help moralism or whatever, except to this extent: that he is ruling out any suggestion that Abraham might have been ‘just the sort of person God was looking for,’ so that there might be some merit prior to the promise, in other words, some kind of ‘ boast’ (220).

He does affirm “the non-reckoning of sin” (220).  So there’s imputation, at least non-imputation!  In fact, “Forgiveness—the non-reckoning of sin—is thus right at the heart of the larger picture which Paul is sketching, but we must not for that reason ignore that larger picture” (221).

At several points, I have pointed out where Wright verges on the doctrine of Christ’s active obedience, only to pull back.  At this point, he speaks to it directly: “We note in particular that the ‘obedience’ of Christ is not designed to amass a treasury of merit which can then be ‘reckoned’ to the believer, as in some Reformed schemes of thought, but is rather a way of saying what Paul says more fully in Philippians 2:8, that the Messiah was obedient all the way to death, even the death on the cross.”  He is the faithful Israelite who fulfills the single plan for one family (228).  It’s not just that people can go to heaven when they die now, but that the age to come has in some sense already dawned, which encompasses all of creation (228).

On one hand, he seems to assume that he invented “union with Christ” and was the first to observe and it “fully dovetails” with “the doctrine of justification.”  “It is not the case, in other words, that one has to choose between ‘justification by faith’ and ‘being in Christ’ as the ‘center’ of Paul’s thought.  As many Reformed theologians in particular have seen—though one would not know it from reading John Piper, Stephen Westerholm and many others—the two must not be played off against one another, and indeed they can only be understood in relation to one another” (228-229).  Paul “…established in Romans 6:1-11 that what is true of the Messiah (dying to sin, rising to new life) is now to be ‘reckoned’ as true of all who are baptized into him…” (229).

Wright nicely points up that Romans 6 isn’t a shift from “doctrine” to “ethics,” but continuing the same covenantal story of exodus through water.  “Baptism recapitulates the story of Israel’s escape from Egypt and, as in Romans 8, of the journey to the promised land—in this case, the entire new creation”(230).  The Sinai covenant “began with grace…, and ended with the promise of blessing on obedience and the warning of curse on disobedience (Deuteronomy)” (230).  It is here—in Romans 6—not in “the active obedience of Christ” that we find Paul’s line of thought.  The law was never given as a moral ladder of merit, but as the way for the redeemed to live (231-232).  But does this entirely account for Jesus’ “woes,” or even with what Wright himself has just said: “warning of curse on disobedience”?  Deuteronomy doesn’t present the Torah as simply a “reasonable service” for those who are redeemed, as Paul assumes concerning the moral law in Romans 12:1-5.

In any case, “It is not the ‘righteousness’ of Jesus Christ which is ‘reckoned’ to the believer.  It is his death and resurrection…All that the supposed doctrine of the ‘imputed righteousness of Christ’ has to offer is offered instead by Paul under this rubric, on these terms and within this covenantal framework” (232-233).  “There are many things which are pastorally helpful in the short or medium term which are not in fact grounded on the deepest possible reading of Scripture” (233).

Wright next turns to Romans 8, launching out with another caricature: “What has been lacking in much of the tradition has been the interlocking Pauline features of (a) the renewal of creation and (b) the indwelling of the Spirit” (236).  We partake of salvation in advance.  “At the same time he insists that the signs of the Spirit’s life must be present: if anyone doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, that person doesn’t belong to him (Romans 8:9), and ‘if you live according to the flesh, you will die’ (Romans 8:13)”

You cannot, in short, have a Pauline doctrine of assurance (and the glory of the Reformation doctrine of justification is precisely assurance) without the Pauline doctrine of the Spirit.  Try to do it, and you will put too much weight on human faith, which will then generate all kinds of further questions about types of faith, about faith and feelings, about what happens when faith wobbles.  This, in turn, will generate worried reactions, as people look on and see a supposed Protestantism which appears to regard strong emotional certainty of being saved as the criterion for being saved in fact (237).

“The trouble with some would-be Reformation theology is that it is not only insufficiently biblical.  It is also insufficiently trinitarian” (239).  Since it is not clear what “would-be Reformation theology” he has in mind, it is difficult to know quite how to respond, except to say that the Reformed tradition has been thoroughly shaped in its covenant theology by a trinitarian perspective.  Its emphasis on the Spirit’s person and work is especially pronounced, particularly in the light of other Protestant trajectories.

Do we then overthrow the Reformation tradition by this theology?  On the contrary, we establish it.  Everything Luther and Calvin wanted to achieve is within this glorious Pauline framework of thought.  The difference is that, whereas for some of their followers it really did look as though the sun was going round the earth, we have now glimpsed the reality (252).

To employ his own analogy, there are indeed impressive pieces of Paul’s puzzle in Wright’s box to make sense of some of the arguments.  However, the best pieces are drawn from biblical-theological box-tops that Reformed theologians have long recognized.  “Israel recapitulates the primal sin of Adam and Eve” (241).  “Embrace the God-given law, Paul says to his fellow Jews (to his own former self!) and you are embracing that which must declare you to be a transgressor, a lawbreaker, on all fours with the ‘sinners’ who are outside God’s covenant” (243).  However, Wright is working with only one covenant and this inevitably constrains his interpretation throughout.  In Romans 10 Paul “is thinking, in fact, of a covenant renewal which will be recognizably that of which Deuteronomy 30 was speaking when it spoke of ‘doing of the law’ which was not difficult, requiring someone to bring it down from heaven or out of the depths of the sea” (245). However, this misses the important and intentional switch of terms in Romans 10.  Instead of saying that Torah—God’s law—is not far off, Paul speaks of the gospel.  Wright puts his own conclusion in italics: “When people believe the gospel of Jesus and his resurrection, and confess him as Lord, they are in fact doing what Torah wanted all along, and are therefore displaying the necessary marks of covenant renewal” (245).  However, this is to turn the law into the gospel.

Next week, we’ll turn to Wright’s discussion of the church.

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Bushisms, Bidenisms, and Humility

Last month, at Slate.com, Jeremy Stahl collected some of the notable gaffes of Vice President Joseph Biden. Like “Bushisms,” “Bidenisms” are public statements that keep the White House staffers up all night trying to fix for the next day’s press.

Explaining the president’s concern to coordinate distribution of the stimulus money through local governments in early September, Biden responded to the claim that by law the federal government doesn’t have that kind of authority to work with states and cities.  Inexplicably, Biden turned it into something like self-defense.  “I have not bent the law,” he replied, “but I have let imagination take hold in some places where I think it’s consistent with the spirit of the law…Is that the best way of saying that?  Yes…I should stop.”  Indeed.

“The precise definition of Bidenism, like a Bidenism itself, is murky,” Stahl explains.  The best ones “exemplify the bluster, excess verbosity, and fake charm of dumb politician stereotypes, yet they come from a seasoned politico who can also be clever and self-effacing.”  Typically, Bidenisms are “awkward, inappropriate, or both” and can at least be interpreted as insulting, although they are often followed by self-deprecating attempts to deflect potential criticism of his remark.  These follow-up remarks are often “just as cringe-worthy as the original statement.”  He seems to be aware even as the remark leaves his lips that it is a “Bidenism.”

Stahl points out that a “Bidenism” is quite different from the “Bushisms” that used to provide late-night fodder. Where the former comes across as arrogant and condescending, the latter convey the impression of ignorance—sort of an Archie Bunker or Homer Simpson type of gaffe, according to Stahl.  With Bushisms, you kind of felt sorry for the speaker; his goal, at least, seems to have been to be direct, clear, and forthright.  On the other hand, Bidenisms seem more like an intentional murkiness that provokes unease with the speaker’s integrity.

I don’t know enough about either distinguished public servants to make character judgments.  That’s not why this piece interested me.  Rather, it makes me think of the rhetorical comparisons and contrasts between “fundamentalists” and “progressive evangelical” (read: Emergent) types.

Purveyors of the “old time religion” routinely misunderstood or at least overstated their case, often in the service of a very good cause with the best of intentions.  Still, the gaffes—not only rhetorical, but theological—were dangerous.  They tended to erode confidence in the positions that they represented.  Passion and intensity of conviction is no compensation for ignorance, overstatement and bad arguments. And in many ways, this tendency to let the rhetoric get ahead of thinking prepared many thoughtful young people for a murkiness that is increasingly devaluing the coinage of ordinary language.

For the fundamentalists of yesteryear (and there are still some around), everything was easy to interpret.  In fact, no interpretation was needed.  Any God-fearing American knew that the Bible is a word-for-word dictation from heaven and that the nation was divided into clearly “saved” and “godless” compartments.  But the Emergents know better.  They may not be certain about the Bible or its central truths, but they are at least sure that they’re not sure—and that you can’t be either.  Having just picked up a few summaries of summaries of “postmodernism,” they “get it,” as they often say themselves.  Such boasts may have signaled bondage to modernist rationalism on the part of anyone with confidence in truth, but they’re perfectly justified so long as we’re the ones making them.

G. K. Chesterton once observed that in the past, humility used to settle on the organ of ambition.  You were meant to doubt yourself, but not the truth.  Today, however, he said that humility has moved to the organ of conviction.  You’re expected to be sure of yourself, but to doubt the truth.  Arrogance and condescension, followed by false humility, seems the order of the day.

I wonder if this is one way of interpreting not only the difference between “Bushisms” and “Bidenisms” but fundamentalism and liberal evangelicalism.  No one can know everything.  And no one can know anything perfectly.  Even in Scripture, as the Westminster divines confessed, not everything is equally plain or equally important.  Yet our Emergent brothers and sisters risk tilting the windmill in the other direction, as if the mere fact that every fact is interpreted by people within particular communities and shaped by certain prejudices means that you can’t know the same truth that a Sudanese woman today or a Jewish rabbi who lived long ago in Palestine.

So maybe it’s time to leave both versions of arrogance behind and become pilgrims again—people who know the Shepherd’s voice and follow him, even though they still haven’t found what they’re looking for.  The world may still not be impressed, but I have a hunch that it’s at least going to be oddly—maybe even pleasantly—surprised to hear people speak with authority about the things that matter most precisely because they are following God’s external Word instead of the gaffes—whether ignorant or arrogant—that arise within themselves.

-Mike Horton

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Two Kingdoms Questions (Part 3)

I started a short series of blog posts last week dealing with several common questions and objections to the Reformation doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. Here are parts 1 and 2, if you missed them.

Today, I’m finishing this series by taking up the most serious objection, namely, that this view denies the presence of Christ’s kingdom today.  Critics contend that the Two Kingdoms is sort of like dispensationalism: “let’s just wait until Jesus gets back.”  Often the objection gets boiled down to a statement like, “Two-Kingdoms proponents don’t’ care about transforming the culture here and now.”

A lot comes down to how we relate the “already” of Christ’s kingdom to the “not yet” that is still up ahead.  I recently read a blog post somewhere in which the author (a mainline Presbyterian) said that dispensationalism is the only thing that mainline Presbyterians have managed to denounce as heresy in the 20th century.  I’ve written enough critiques of the dispensationalist way of reading the Bible to dispel any legitimate suspicion of being a closet dispensationalist.  However, I think this blogger makes a point.  There is a kind of American Protestant activism (fueled especially by Charles Finney and the revivalistic legacy) that regards moral, cultural, and social reform as the main business of the church.  If dispensationalism rejects the “already” of Christ’s kingdom, the opposite error is the downplay the “not yet.”

Notice that throughout the Gospels, Christ the King is actually present with his kingdom.  And what happens? The outcasts, prostitutes, and other assorted sinners are forgiven and welcomed to the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Even the healings are signs the reveal Christ’s kingdom chiefly as a ministry of salvation from sin, death, and hell.  Here, with the King present in person with his kingdom, we might expect the banners to be unfurled, the wicked and the oppressors (whoever we identify as such) driven out and destroyed. Surely, if ever in this present age, we were to expect a total transformation of the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ, it would have been in Christ’s earthly ministry.  Yet he just preaches the gospel, forgives sins, heals the sick, and marches toward the cross.

Nor do we find a blueprint in the New Testament Epistles for a Christian economic or political system, a Christian theory of art or science, or a plan for universal hygiene.  The commands are simply to live godly lives in the present, as parents, children, spouses, employers, and employees, caring for the needs of the saints, participating regularly in the public assembly of Christ’s body, and to pray for our rulers.

This does not mean that we may not be called to extraordinary—even heroic—acts of service, or (especially in a democratic republic) to exercise our legal rights to defend justice and engage in acts of charity beyond the communion of saints.  Thank God for William Wilberforce, who drew on his Christian convictions as he brought the slave trade to an end in England.  Thank God for believers who were great scientists and helped to create greater understanding and advances in medicine.  But God should also be thanked for the myriad believers who have simply strived to fulfill their everyday callings as parents, neighbors, workers, volunteers, and friends.  Abraham Kuyper spoke of the “little people” of the kingdom, citing examples—like a parishioner: the elderly woman who led him to Christ even though he was her pastor but as yet steeped in liberalism.  We will still need government and private sector relief agencies, but it would make a big difference in society if Christians spent more time in their ordinary vocations, caring for aging parents and growing (perhaps physically or mentally challenged) children, being good neighbors, and fulfilling their calling at work with remarkable skill and dedication.

Furthermore, non-Christians are as likely to be numbered among the great heroes, too.  Calvin speaks eloquently of the Spirit’s work in common grace of bringing truth, goodness, and beauty in earthly matters to the world through pagans, benefiting us all.  It would be “ingratitude toward the Spirit,” he says, if we were to ignore these gifts.  So in these acts of love and service to our neighbors, Christians are not alone.  It is due to God’s common grace, but the church is not a common-grace institution.  It is not the Rotary Club, UNICEF, or a political action group.  The visible church is God’s means of bringing his saving grace to the ends of the earth.

It’s the Lord’s Day again, just in time.  It’s been a long week of glorifying and enjoying God out in the world, confessing sins, and receiving God’s forgiveness for having fallen short.  Now it’s time to be a recipient of God’s public renewal of his vows to us.  It’s time to come and unburden our load and find in Christ true rest for our souls.  But, alas, the pastor has chosen another hobby-horse this week.  He’s a man with a plan and he imagines that Christ’s sheep are his army of volunteers.  So here is a weary mom, a frustrated dad with a disappointing relationship at work, an elderly woman who wonders why God still leaves her on earth to suffer debilitating pains.  There is a teen-ager with doubts about himself and his faith, even about God’s existence. And the pastor is going to set aside the assignment he has been given by his Master in order to call these folks to transform their world, or at least their neighborhood.  Not even if that church were full of architects, bankers, redevelopment officers, urban planners, economists, and a mayor or two could it achieve the goal that this pastor has just placed before (and upon) the people under his care.

In a case like this, the pastor is missing several important biblical points: We’re in the in-between time right now.  Not only are the secular kingdoms still secular (though we still participate in them); we ourselves are still simultaneously justified and sinful.  We are not ourselves transformed enough (glorified) to agree upon what a transformed world would look like in all the details, much less to implement it perfectly.  Imagine an international, evangelical Christian congress where a plan for transforming the world were to be designed. How long would it take before fights broke out?

I’ve been in Christian conferences where theologians, ethicists, and pastors presented their imperatives for a new world order and Christian economists in the room hardly knew where to begin enumerating the factual confusion and incoherence, much less the wisdom, of their arguments.  In this in-between time, even a non-Christian economist or hospice worker who cares about people will be more of a genuine neighbor to a sufferer than a lot of busy Christians with big plans that are impractical or uninformed.

So why shouldn’t Christian economists work alongside their non-Christian partners for solutions to problems in this in-between time?  And why shouldn’t Christian volunteers serve along aside their non-Christian neighbors in the Peace Corps, Hospice, Big Brother/Big Sister, and Little League?  Why does everything have to be “Christian”?  And why do we have to turn God’s service to his flock into a political party convention?  I love Bono, but I want my pastor to be Joe Shepherd.

I remember asking the general secretary of the World Council of Churches if his organization still holds to its old slogan, “Doctrine divides; service unites.”  Laughing, he said, “Good grief, no.  We’ve learned over the decades that service divides.  Some think capitalism is the way forward, while others insist on socialism.  The pie cuts a thousand ways.  But then we’ve found that when we go back to talking about the Nicene Creed or some such thing, there is at least a sense of people coming back into the room and sitting down with each other to talk again.”

Pastors aren’t authorized to create their own blueprint for transformation, but are servants of the Word.  Where Scripture has clearly spoken, he must speak.  Where it is silent, he must keep his personal opinions and perhaps even learned conclusions to himself.  Of course, pastors are called to preach the whole council of God: not only the gospel, but the law—including its third use (to guide Christian obedience).  That’s enough to occupy our prayerful action in the world, without piling up commands that God never gave.  We’re never called to transform the world (or even our neighborhood).  We’re never called even to bring millions to Jesus Christ.  We’re called to be faithful in our vocations at work, at home, in our neighborhoods and in our witness to those individuals whom God brings across our path in ordinary ways every day.

One day, this kingdom will extend to every aspect of worldly existence.  There will be no tyrants, no pain, no disease, no injustice, no poverty, no idolatry, no oppression.  The kingdoms of this world will be made the kingdom of our God and of his Christ and he will reign forever.  For now, however, Jesus is gathering guests for his feast, forgiving, justifying, calling, renewing, sanctifying, and sending them out to bring others to the swelling hall.  Christ’s reign in grace (through the Great Commission) is a parenthesis in God’s plan.  His reign in glory, commencing with his return in judgment and final conquest of the whole earth, will be everlasting.

Of course, we live today in the light of that future hope.  This is the message of Romans 8:18-25.  To paraphrase Paul, we are stewards of God’s earth, not simply because of God’s creation of the world and of us as its keepers in the past, but also because the whole creation will share one day in the glorious liberty of God’s children.  “For in this hope we were saved” (v 24). Yet we also live in the present as those who do not yet see all things subjected visibly to Christ and are all too familiar with the opposition of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  “Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (vv 24-25).  The indwelling Spirit engenders within us the longing for Christ’s return (v 26).

We are not building a kingdom, but receiving one (Heb 12:28).  Even our lives in the world, in our callings, in our witness to our neighbors, is not bringing the future of Christ’s consummated kingdom into the present. Rather, it is God’s means of extending his reign in grace, while we wait expectantly for his return in glory.

-Mike Horton

[For more on this, see regular MR-contributor Jason Stellman's new book, Dual Citizens, available here.]

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Responding to Questions About the Two Kingdoms (Part 2)

Like I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been peppered with questions lately, privately and publicly, regarding the doctrine of the “Two Kingdoms”: namely, the distinction between Christ’s heavenly kingdom and the kingdoms of this age. Yesterday, I took up the first question which centered on the provenance of the doctrine. Many critics wrongly assume anything Two Kingdoms related is Lutheran (not that there’s anything wrong with that). What I tried to show yesterday is that this doctrine (like justification) is shared by the two branches of the Reformation.

Today, I want to take up a second objection, that the Two Kingdoms view engenders an individualistic and passive view of the church’s role in kingdom-living today.

This concern is based on the assumption that the church as the aggregate of professing Christians is the same thing as the church as the institution founded by Christ for preaching, baptizing, administering Communion, catechizing, and making disciples.  In a Reformation perspective, Christ creates his church in the power of his Spirit through Word and sacrament.  This is his kingdom of grace.  Yet this kingdom of grace will not yet be a kingdom of glory and power until Christ returns.  Until then, God’s common grace satisfies the needs of believer and unbeliever alike and believers serve alongside their unbelieving neighbors in divinely ordained callings that promote the general welfare rather than the salvation of sinners.

Yes, it is true, we are saved merely by receiving Christ and all of his benefits.  That is why faith comes through the preaching of the gospel.  We are sitting there, hearing the Good News.  God ratifies his promise in baptism the Supper.  Our action in this meeting is to respond, “Amen!” to everything that God has sworn, to praise God from whom all blessings flow, and to be refashioned as characters in God’s unfolding drama.  “Re-salinated” by God’s service to us through his ambassadors, we are dispersed out of the salt shaker and scattered into the world as new creatures.  The place for our good works, our activity, our service, is primarily out in the world, not in a plethora of church-based “ministries.”

Our Lord credited Mary Magdalene with choosing “the better part” when she sat at Jesus’ feet to hear him teach her who he was and what he had come to do, while Martha scolded her sister for making her do all the work.  There is a time to receive and then there is a time to pass out the gifts that you have been given.  The theater for our good works is in the world, through our ordinary callings, wherever our neighbors (believer and unbeliever alike) need us.

Next time, we’ll finish up by looking at one of the most significant objections to the Two Kingdoms view: that it denies the presence of Christ’s kingdom today; that it’s sort of like dispensationalism: let’s just wait until Jesus gets back; that its proponents don’t care about transforming the culture here and now.

-Mike Horton

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Responding to Some Good Questions About the Two Kingdoms

I’ve been peppered with questions lately, privately and publicly, regarding the doctrine of the “Two Kingdoms”: namely, the distinction between Christ’s heavenly kingdom and the kingdoms of this age.  A lot of good questions have been raised.  A lot of silly caricatures have also appeared, which is to be expected.  My colleague at Westminster Seminary California, David VanDrunen has a full-length book that Crossway is set to release this winter, which will be a lot more helpful than these passing remarks.  However, I want to respond briefly to a few of the dominant reactions to this concept.  Christians of good will may still disagree over these issues, but it’s important to deal with real positions rather than straw opponents.

The “Two Kingdoms” doctrine is a distinctively Lutheran view.

Any good, standard history of Christian political ethics (like O’Donovan and O’Donovan, From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought, 150-1628) demonstrates that the two-kingdoms motif can be found in the church fathers, especially Augustine (see Robert A. Markus’ work), weaves its way in modified versions through the Middle Ages, and is given vigorous voice not only by Luther but also by Calvin and other magisterial reformers.

Augustine himself was more of a “one-kingdom” person early on, sharing his fellow-Christians’ confidence in the wake of Constantine’s cessation of persecution and adoption of Christianity as the religion of the empire. However, perhaps nudged by experiences (such as the sack of Rome by the pagans and the reproach of latent Roman pagans that abandoning the defeat was due to having abandoned the gods), Augustine rethought the relationship between the two kingdoms.  He traced the “two seeds” after the fall, one from Cain (builders of civilization) and the other from Seth (the covenant line), to the reunion of cult and culture in the old covenant theocracy, and its division again in the exile.

The ethics of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are markedly different from the old covenant that God delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai.  Now is not the time of driving out the enemies of God, but of praying for them and preaching the gospel.  It’s the era of forgiveness and grace, not of judgment.

“Christendom” (the fusion of the two kingdoms) is the illusion that a common empire can claim the conditional promises that God gave uniquely to the theocratic nation of Israel.  Repeatedly, Calvin asserted that these laws were given exclusively to Israel and are no longer binding on Christians or on nation states.  “Christendom” is a tough habit to break when your church happens to be favored by the state and your sovereigns are anointed in religious ceremonies like David and his heirs.

So it’s not surprising that Christians prefer “one kingdom” when the wind of history is at their back (or so it seems, at least) and “two kingdoms” makes a comeback when the church is persecuted or no longer privileged. Some Christians today seem hostile to the two-kingdoms idea because it undermines some of the motivations for culture warring.  America is a Christian nation and it’s losing its Judeo-Christian identity.  We need to renew our national covenant with God.  This is the assumption that I hear from some brothers and sisters in their visceral reactions to this concept.  Ironically, many liberal Protestants react for similar reasons.  If Christ’s kingdom is not to be identified with the church’s work of transforming societies, cultures, economies, and political orders, then what else is it for?

I’m not saying that the only reason that the two-kingdoms doctrine is unpopular among Christians is a vague but symbolically powerful cultural dominance.  However, the history does suggest some kind of connection to the political winds of the times.

With all due respect to Lutherans, it was Calvinists who argued most strongly for the independence of the church from the state in Geneva, London, Amsterdam, and elsewhere, and defended religious liberties.  Among evangelical Protestants at least, Calvinists were directly involved in arguing (along with Quakers and deists) for the separation of church and state.  Trained under Presbyterian stalwart John Witherspoon (a signer of the Declaration of Independence), James Madison used two kingdoms arguments for his case.  In fact, he surveyed history to argue that the church itself is healthiest when it is least dependent on state sponsorship and support.

Clearly, Luther drew the lines between the two kingdoms in clear, bold colors, but so did Calvin—and both did so especially over against the radical Anabaptists who were trying to take over cities in the name of Christ’s millennial kingdom!  Calvin wrote explicitly of the “two kingdoms”: both under the reign of the risen and ascended Christ, but “in different ways”; one, by common grace and the moral law inscribed on the conscience and the other by saving grace and the gospel.  Neither Lutherans nor Calvinists have been consistent in working out their theory, but the two-kingdoms doctrine has a substantial body of reflection throughout the whole history of the church.

-Mike Horton

[this is the first of three posts on this topic]

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Wright Wednesdays: Part 7

Justification and the Testimony of Paul

In chapter six, Wright interprets other Pauline epistles (Philippians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Ephesians) in the light of his over-arching framework.  In his famous contrast in Philippians 3 between “the righteousness of the law” and the righteousness that he now has “in Christ,” Paul designated himself, “‘…as to righteousness within Torah, blameless.’”  “Ah, there’s the rub,” says Wright.  “What on earth did he mean by that?” (143). “Does that not indicate Paul’s pride in his own achievement, and thus an ‘attitudinal’ failing, the sort of ‘self-righteousness’ which the old perspective made its chief target?  Well, yes and no.”  Like his fellow Jews, Paul believed (as Sanders suggests), that one gets in by grace by stays in by obedience.  “It is vital to distinguish two things: the status of God’s people, prior to anything they do, and the life they are called to lead which points forward to the eventual judgment…there is, on the one hand, the verdict that is already announced, and there is on the other hand, as in Galatians 5:5, the verdict that is still eagerly awaited” (144).

At this point, Wright fails to mention a typical Reformed interpretation: Paul was blameless in terms of “righteousness within Torah”—and here, in this context of Paul’s specific appeal to his Pharisaical pedigree, we can say he is specifically referring to the boundary markers.  In this sense, he was blameless, but all of this is to be considered a debit compared to being in Christ.  Wright seems to approximate this view on page 147: “He performed the ‘works of Torah,’ attaining a standard that he had regarded as ‘blameless.’…; ‘blameless under the law’ is not the same as ‘sinless’….”  “The keeping of the law was not a way of earning anything, of gaining a status before God; the status was already given in birth, ethnic roots, circumcision and the ancestral possession of Torah.  All that Torah-obedience then does—it’s a big ‘all,’ but it is all—is to consolidate, to express what is already given, to inhabit appropriately a suit of clothes (‘righteousness’) that one has already inherited” (145).

However, is this really what Paul says here?  Not exactly.  First, Paul does not say that his circumcision and strict adherence to the ceremonies merely pointed to a righteous status that he already possessed by grace as a Jew.  Rather, he refers to this blameless observance as “a righteousness of my own, which comes from the law.”  Second, given Wright’s rejection of imputation in favor exclusively of God’s own faithfulness to his covenant, how does “righteousness” now come to mean “a suite of clothes” that one wears?  Third, according to Wright, “The question is not, ‘What must I do to get to heaven?’ but How can you tell in the present who will be vindicated in the future?” (146). However, there is no indication here that Paul presupposes any division between the question of personal salvation and belonging to the right group.  Even in the way Wright states the question, I fail to see the antithesis: If “going to heaven” means the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting, as Christians confess, how is that different from being vindicated in the future?

Wright next introduces his distinction between present and future justification.  On one hand, Wright says that the final justification will be based on works, a total life lived.  Yet on the other hand, it is a verdict “here and now” that “will be repeated ‘on the last day.’  The works in question will not earn their performers their membership within God’s true, eschatological, covenant people, they will demonstrate that membership” (146).  No argument here.  This is standard “old perspective” fare, but is it a movement from Wright’s earlier work, where “future justification” is based on “a total life lived” rather than simply demonstrating the reality of justification?

Wright properly warns of treating justification as a “personal relationship.”

It is of course popular to say that, since the language of ‘righteousness’ is essentially ‘relational,’ ‘justification’ actually means ‘the establishment of a personal relationship,’ a mutual knowing, between the believer and God, or the believer and Jesus.  But this is extremely misleading (and made more so by all the loose talk in some Christian circles about ‘my relationship with God’ as the center of everything, which then of course becomes problematic when one encounters depression, or enters a ‘dark night of the soul’) (149).

Here, Wright will find only approval in Reformed circles.  In fact, we can identify with Luther’s reaction to Melanchthon’s introspective anxiety: “The gospel is entirely outside of you!”  The gospel is an objective announcement about something that has happened in history, not a subjective feeling that we are close to God.  The gospel provokes assurance and conversion, but cannot be confused with our inner states.  The gospel creates a new relationship, but it is not itself to be identified as a personal relationship.  Wright stresses, “relational” is different from “lawcourt” (226); this, despite his polemics, is in complete harmony with the “old perspective.”  It is clear enough that Wright is once again reacting against a pietistic emphasis that he mistakes for a Reformation perspective.

One of Wright’s best summaries of justification appears on pages 150-151:

Paul unpacks the meaning of the status in the four ways we have seen.  It is a status of (a) having the court find in my favor despite my unworthiness, (b) ‘covenant membership,’ (c) advanced eschatological judgment (hearing, ahead of time, the verdict which will be announced at the end), and above all (d) God’s verdict on Jesus himself when he raised him from the dead and thereby demonstrated that he really was his Son, the Messiah (Romans 1:4; cf. 1 Timothy 3:16).

Therefore, “the ‘faith’ of the beneficiaries, looking away from themselves and to his achievement, is the badge which shows that they are indeed ‘in him.’”

Wright points to Paul’s repeated references to Christ working in us, God’s grace at work in us, and so forth—passages that are hardly passed over in Reformation preaching.  Nevertheless, he writes, “If we, particularly those of us who have been strongly influenced by the Reformation, perceive such language as casting a shadow of doubt over ‘justification by faith,’ the problem is not with this way of putting it—it is after all Paul himself who puts it like this!—but with our traditions” (153).  Here the author himself seems to assume that justification includes everything from grace to glory, but “old perspective” exegetes have ordinarily interpreted such passages as referring to sanctification as distinct from justification.

That Wright doesn’t appreciate this careful distinction is evident from his treatment of 1  Corinthians 1:30: Paul says that “‘righteousness’ is something that believers have because they are ‘in Christ’—though it is quite illegitimate to seize on that and say that therefore they have something called ‘the righteousness of Christ’ imputed to them, in the full sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sense so emphasized by John Piper.”  Although there is “a great truth underneath that Reformation claim,” Wright says “we cannot press this verse into service as a primary vehicle of it, not least because, were we to do so, we should also have to speak, presumably, of ‘imputed wisdom,’ ‘imputed sanctification’ and ‘imputed redemption’” (157).  This strikes me as another uncharitable reading of the tradition, as if it were saying that all of the gifts that we have in Christ must be given to us by imputation.  Paul teaches that all of our blessings are in Christ, but justification is in Christ by imputation.

Wright’s interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:19 appears to be an example of allowing one’s systematic-theological framework to run roughshod over exegesis: “In other words, that, in the Messiah, we might embody God’s faithfulness, God’s covenant faithfulness, God’s action in reconciling the world to himself” (163).  A passage that conveys a transfer from “sinner” to “righteous” simply on the basis of Christ’s completed work is now read as our own activity in reconciliation.  “The little word genōmetha in 2 Corinthians 5:21b—‘that we might become God’s righteousness in him’—does not sit comfortably with the normal interpretation, according to which ‘God’s righteousness’ is ‘imputed’ or ‘reckoned’ to believers…Surely that leans far too much toward a Roman Catholic notion of infused righteousness?” (165).  This is an odd conclusion, given Wright’s own debunking of the idea of an infused moral virtue.  “Become” (genōmetha) is not the difficulty that he supposes; a change has indeed occurred, but it is a change in status, as Wright himself suggests repeatedly elsewhere.

Next week, we’ll move on to Wright’s treatment of the Epistle to the Romans in chapter seven of his book, Justification.

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Five for Friday

In the Land of Edwardsjonathan-edwards

In this week’s edition of Five for Friday, our blog interview feature, we welcome Rev. Stephen LaValley, a PCA pastor in Enfield, CT, the same town in which Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

If you know of a Reformation pacesetter that we should interview, please email us and we’ll feature their story as someone leading the way for Reformation.

What is the religious historical significance of the area in which you minister?

On the right hand side of Route 5, in the south-central portion of Enfield, in front of a day-care facility for children, under the overgrown bushes there is a medium-sized stone.  Long-forgotten, it memorializes July 8, 1741, the date upon which Jonathan Edwards preached his magisterial sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Enfield was one of the first sites in New England where revival began, brought about by that great sermon.  Soon, some 300 souls were accounted as being added to the Kingdom of God. This wasn’t only due to Edwards’ preaching, but also numerous other colonial ‘Clergymen’ who were preaching throughout the countryside to the common folk with simple exposition of the Scriptures.  Many more souls would be added to the Kingdom of God through itinerant preaching ministries and the outbreak of The Great Awakening all over New England.

Today, however, no Reformational presence remains in Enfield or the surrounding community.

What is the most difficult aspect of ministry there?

The most difficult aspect of ministry today in Enfield is very much the same as it was in Edwards’ day.  He would complain of declining ‘moral principles’, declining church membership, and a general lack of the knowledge of God and concern for one’s standing before Him.  That same spiritual lethargy, or outright rebellion, remains in place today.  Among professing Christians, rampant Arminianism steals from the glory of God in the salvation of sinners while leaving men and women without the foundation of an assurance founded upon the gracious promises of a loving, justifying God.

There is a prevailing pagan/unbelieving mindset amongst non-Christians that sees little need of God or simply knows nothing, by choice, of Him.  Many are simply agnostic.  Others are turned off to ‘religion’ because of the rampant sexual abuse of the Roman Catholic clergy throughout New England.  Some 21 Roman Catholic churches in our immediate area will be closing soon due, in large part, to people leaving Roman Catholicism in droves.  Sadly, they are not seeking an alternative. They are merely ceasing their practice.  There is also a significant and growing presence of Islam in our area with 3 mosques and a number of Sufi communities.

In addition, those professing to be ‘Christian’ or ‘evangelical’ tend to gravitate to the more charismatic or Pentecostal-influenced churches where modern ‘tastes’ for spontaneity and excitement can be assuaged.  In fact, when folks come to visit and participate in our worship, the typical comment is that we are ‘a lot like the Catholic church.’  As I’ve spoken to and visited with these folks, they are essentially responding to what they perceive as the ‘regimented’ order of our worship.  Our worship is traditional (not for tradition’s sake) because of our Reformed and biblical convictions that worship must be offered unto God and set forth in as simple and unadorned a way as Scripture permits and commands.  Additionally, either myself or one of our two Ruling Elders participates in the leadership of our worship.  This, too, is different from what they usually see.

Christians seem to have little or no understanding or knowledge of what pleases God in worship (Romans 12:1) and little burden to concern themselves with the effort of finding out!

These prevailing perspectives, I have found, seem to come from, not only what is coming out of churches in our area, but also the ‘self-esteem’ messages of modern television ‘preacher personalities’ such as Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyers.  At a recent Saturday morning Men’s Breakfast in our home, we spent a large part of our discussion responding to the questions and observations of a number of the men regarding how they find either of the two aforementioned personalities to be ‘uplifting’ and/or ‘inspirational’.  In large part, due to this phenomenon, the gospel seems to be fundamentally misunderstood and misapprehended—and this was glaringly apparent as our discussion over our pancakes and sausage continued.

What part of the Reformation message is most effective at penetrating the hearts and minds of people in your community?

One of the great benefits of the Reformation was the propagation of the Word of God.  The Bible remains the best tool of the church today.  Discipleship over opened Bibles with young believers, or men and women who have missed the gospel for self-esteem and individual ‘purpose’, is essential.  Simply proclaiming the cross of Christ and the resultant justification of sinners through imputed, alien righteousness is more often than not something that has never been heard.  Justification by faith continues to be the unfailing cry that must be relied upon by any church that desires to bear fruit for God’s glory.

The message of the unadorned gospel, through faithful preaching and disciple-making, has unending application and power for both believers and unbelievers alike; both in initial conversion and ongoing sanctification.  God’s Word is our only rule in faith and life.

What has been the most effective in your ministry?

Discipleship–that one-on-one, costly, and time-consuming effort to help professing believers and new Christians alike to live grateful lives pleasing to God–is always an ongoing effort.  We connect men and women to mature believers and help them to form sustained relationships.  We also intentionally build relationships with people as a means of gospel-witness and/or simply displaying the love of Christ.

Ultimately, the continued presence and progress of a gospel-proclaiming, witnessing, fellowshipping, worshipping, local church is what we believe the Lord will bless—even if the progress is often slow and indiscernible.  We have ministered to the community and advertised the presence of our church in a number of ways because we believe that the community’s awareness of our presence is an essential part of the Lord’s leading them to salvation.

One gentleman recently walked in to our church for worship on a typical Sunday morning and pronounced when greeted that, he “…might come back if [the greeter at the door] leave[s] me alone and if the Word, and none of that other [stuff], is preached.”  He is still attending…

What gives you hope and confidence when faced with a difficult ministry experience?

The cross of Jesus Christ is what gives me hope and confidence when I am faced with difficult ministry.  The Apostle Paul proclaimed, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).  There are many discouragements:  slow progress, half-hearted repentance, few conversions, apathy, immorality, the overwhelming costs of maintaining a ministry with physical property in costly Connecticut, a sometimes-lack of awareness on the part of the established church to recognize the mission field that is New England, the difficulty of recognizing and training leaders, etc…

But the greatest danger to our church (any church) is a loss of confidence and hope in the power of God in the gospel of His Son.  The cross of Christ is the only event of faith that gives us any confidence in ministry—it is our only ‘boast’.  In 1734 it was Edwards’ desire to “bring the sinful to a knowledge of God and to the experience of spiritual rebirth.”  This is our driving concern and the constant repetition of our prayer.  We are praying for badly-needed revival to come again to Enfield and to New England.

Stephen LaValley is the pastor of Grace Chapel in Enfield, Connecticut. For more information, feel free to email the Rev. LaValley.

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Wright Wednesdays: Part 6

[We're continuing with Mike Horton's review of N. T. Wright's Justification, a response to the critique of John Piper and others to his version of the New Perspective on Paul, especially as it relates to the Reformation's understanding of justification.]

Justification, Faith, and Faithfulness: The Works of the Law

So far, Wright has approximated a traditional Reformation definition of justification several times: representation and substitution, a courtroom verdict—not that people are morally virtuous, but that they are right before God simply by virtue of his verdict, on the basis of Christ.  So then it seems odd that he should say so emphatically, referring to Romans 2:11-16a, that “to be justified” cannot mean for Paul “’to be granted free forgiveness of your sins,’ ‘to come into a right relation with God’ or some other near-synonym of ‘to be reckoned “in the right” before God,’ but rather, and very specifically, ‘to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship.” However, Wright exaggerates the Reformation position in order to define justification as “God’s declaration of membership” (116).  Though forgiveness/imputation and covenant membership are obviously connected in Paul’s thinking, to declare someone righteous is different from declaring someone to be a member of a group.

As is well-known, Wright affirms the “faithfulness of Christ” (pistis Iēsou Christou) interpretation of Richard Hays (117).  “‘The faithfulness of the Messiah,’ in the sense described in the previous chapter—his faithfulness to the long, single purpose of God for Israel—is the instrument, the ultimate agency, by which ‘justification’ takes place…And the way in which people appropriate that justification, that redefinition of God’s people, is now ‘by faith,’ by coming to believe in Jesus as Messiah” (117).

First, in the light of this last statement, wouldn’t “faith in Christ” make more sense? Second, does it make any sense for individuals to “appropriate” a “redefinition of God’s people”?  One may appropriate (or better, receive) God’s verdict of right-standing, but how can one’s believing affect the redefinition of God’s people one way or the other? Even on Wright’s own terms, there is no way to escape the fact that Paul is speaking about a transfer of someone from a state of condemnation to a state of right-standing and forgiveness in justification.  “‘Works of the law’ cannot justify, because God has re-defined his people through the faithfulness of the Messiah” (118).  “Nor, of course, is the idea of faith in Jesus Christ hereby rendered unnecessary: that is the very next thing Paul says in [Rom] 3:22, exactly as in Galatians 2:16.  God’s righteousness is unveiled through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah on the one hand, and for the benefit of all who believe on the other” (203).

Regardless of how one comes down on the genitive construction, the traditional Reformed view certainly includes Christ’s active obedience—his representative, federal (covenantal) fulfillment of the law—as the basis for both soteriology and ecclesiology.  So once again I wonder why Wright is averse to Christ’s active obedience and the concept of imputation?  He adds, “But in Romans 3:20 Paul does explain the meaning of the quotation [“By the works of the law no flesh shall be justified”], by adding, ‘For through the law comes the knowledge of sin’” (118).

Before moving on to Wright’s analysis, it is worth asking whether Paul’s justification for his claim that no one will be justified by works of the law makes sense in Wright’s view.  How could a Gentile become aware of his sin by kosher laws?  Wright believes that the “Gentiles” who “by nature” do some of the things prescribed in the law written on their conscience are actually Christians rather than the noble pagan.  But Paul says that Jews and Gentiles come to know their sin by the law, whether written on tablets or on the conscience.  Thus, every mouth is stopped (Rom 3:19).  How could Gentiles come to know their sin if “the works of the law” are merely the particular commandments given to Israel to distinguish Jews from the nations?  And why does Paul later mention even his own case of coveting in 7:7 rather than, say, keeping Sabbath?  It was because Paul did keep Sabbath, but nevertheless violated the moral law (Phil 3:9).

Wright tries to explain Romans 3:20 in less reductionistic (“covenant membership”) terms than he does, by my reckoning at least, in earlier works: “There are, then, two interlocking reasons why ‘works of the law cannot justify.’  First, God has redefined his people through the faithfulness of the Messiah, and ‘works of the law’ would divide Jew from Gentile in a way that is now irrelevant.  Second, ‘works of the law’ will never justify, because what the law does is to reveal sin.  Nobody can keep it perfectly” (118). Now he’s sounding like the reformers again!  However, if “works of the law” refer only to boundary markers between Jew and Gentile, it’s obvious that Jews could—and did—keep the law in that sense.  Paul does not indict Jews for being uncircumcised or eating with Gentiles, but for failing to keep the moral commands while glorying in their ritual cleanness.

Expanding “works of the law” beyond mere boundary markers of covenant membership is further in evidence when he writes,

‘Transgression,’ we should note, is the actual breaking of the law, whereas ‘sin’ is any missing-of-the-mark, any failure to live as a genuine human being, whether or not the law is there to point it out.  Paul is still, in other words, continuing to explore the theological dimensions of the situation Peter had put himself in.  Either you stay in the Jew-plus-Gentile family of the Messiah, or you erect again the wall of Torah between them—but there will be a notice on your side of that wall, saying, ‘By the way, you have broken me’—both in general, because nobody keeps it perfectly, and in particular, because you have recently been living ‘like a Gentile, not like a Jew’ (Galatians 2:14).

Again he does not seem to understand the Reformation view, allowing only for two interpretations: justification = either (a) a moral quality / God’s own non-transferable attribute of righteousness or (b) membership in God’s family.  Justification “denotes a status, not a moral quality.  It means ‘membership in God’s true family’” (121).  He says, “The lawcourt metaphor behind the language of justification, and of the status ‘righteous’ which someone has when the court has found in their favor, has given way to the clear sense of ‘membership in God’s people’” (121).  By why not read it the other way: the former as the rationale for the latter?  Even in Wright’s own construction here, “someone” is declared righteous when the court has found in his or her favor.  Actual persons are “declared righteous.”  That is semantically distinct from “membership in God’s family,” even if it is the basis for it.  Once more, in the form of “not just this, but also that” ends up excluding “this”:

But the problem is not simply that the law condemns (though it does), shows up sin (though it does) or indeed encourages people into self-righteous ‘legalism’ (which Paul does not mention at all, in this chapter at least).  The problem is that the law gets in the way of the promise to Abraham, the single-plan-through-Israel-to-the-world, first by apparently choking the promise within the failure of Israel (Galatians 3:10-14), then by threatening to divide the promised single family into two (Galatians 3:15-18), then finally by locking everything up in the prison house of sin (Galatians 3:21-22) (123).

Wright reads Romans 2 as saying that Israel failed in its missionary enterprise, not in its faithfulness to the law.  Israel is under the curse because it has “proved unfaithful to the commission (despite the boast of Romans 2:17-20)” (124).  “‘Unfaithful’ here [2:17-20] does not mean ‘unbelieving’ in the sense of simply ‘refusing to have faith in God.’  It means ‘unfaithful to God’s commission” (198).  But then why does Paul contrast the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenant, especially in Galatians?  In Galatians 3:16, 21-22, Wright interprets, “Yes, he says: there was nothing wrong with the law in itself, and had it been possible for a law to have been given which could have given life, then righteousness would have been on the basis of the law—the very thing which Galatians 2:21 had denied” (126).  But why would Paul have said this if the only issue was extending the Abrahamic promise to the world?  Paul’s point is that the law cannot give life, because it cannot give righteousness (justification) because of sin.

Where Wright is correct is in his insistence, “In fat, what appear to Western eyes as two separate issues—salvation from sin on the one hand, a united people of God on the other—seem to have appeared to Paul as part and parcel of the same thing” (127).  “Paul is not saying, as traditional readings have had it, that ‘the law was a hard taskmaster, driving us to despair of ever accomplishing its demands, so that we would be forced to flee to Christ to find an easier way, namely faith” (129).  But Wright can only dismiss this interpretation of Paul because he has reduced the law-promise contrast to the question of covenant membership.  For Paul, faith is opposed to works (and not just some, but all) not only because it keeps the gospel from going out to everyone, but also because (more basically), the gospel itself is distinct from the conditional terms of Sinai!  Where Paul sees the gospel as necessarily implying the reconciliation of human beings to each other, Wright sees the gospel as practically reduced to this social dimension:  “The promises God made to Abraham were a covenant.  Genesis 15 says so, Paul says so (Galatians 3:15, 17); that is the assumed starting point for the whole passage.  The covenant always had in view the liberation of the entire human race from the plight of Genesis 3-11, in other words, God’s dealing with the problem of human sin and the consequent fracturing of human community…” (133).

Boxing at shadows again, Wright opposes the Roman Catholic view as if it were the “old perspective” of the Reformation:

But the verdict of the court, declaring, ‘This person is in the right’ and thus making her ‘righteous’ not in the sense of ‘making her virtuous,’ infusing her with a moral quality called ‘righteousness,’ but in the sense of creating for her the status of ‘having-been-declared-in-the-right,’ is the implicit metaphor behind Paul’s primary subject in this passage [Gal 3], which is God’s action in declaring, ‘You are my children, members of the single Abrahamic family’ (135).

Does he really think the old perspective advanced rather than rejected justification as infused righteousness?

Wright does indeed see Christ’s obedient life and death as the basis for eschatological salvation:

The basis for all this, in theology and eschatology, is the faithful, loving, self-giving death of the Messiah.  This is the theological point of reading pistis Christou and its cognates in terms of the Messiah’s own faithfulness; and this brings us as close as Galatians will let us come to what the Reformed tradition always wanted to say through the language of ‘imputed righteousness’ …But this does not mean that he has ‘fulfilled the law’ in the sense of obeying it perfectly and thus building up a ‘treasury of merit’ which can then be ‘reckoned’ to his people.  That scheme, for all its venerable antecedents in my own tradition as well as John Piper’s, always was an attempt to say something which Paul was saying, but in language and concepts which had still not shaken off the old idea that the law was, after all, given as a ladder of good works up which one might climb to impress God with one’s own moral accomplishments (135).

“God’s promises to Abraham were stuck in the Deuteronomic curse, and could not go forward in history to their fulfillment,” flowing out to the world” (136).  But his choice of the term “curse” is crucial here.  It’s not just that Sinai stood in the way of Zion by virtue of the former’s exclusive claim upon Israel.  Rather, it is that Israel too—like the Gentile world—is under the condemnation of the law.

Next week, we’ll move on to chapter 6 and begin reviewing Wright’s treatment of other Pauline texts.

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Gospel Driven Life

Have you seen Mike Horton’s latest book, The Gospel Driven Life, on the web? Here are a few nice mentions. Thanks for the advance press, folks!

http://theologica.blogspot.com/2009/09/gospel-driven-life.html

http://against-heresies.blogspot.com/2009/09/speaking-of-sequels-gospel-driven-life.html

http://www.westminsterbookstore.com/?p=600

http://intheclearing.blogspot.com/2009/09/having-been-turned-inside-out.html

http://toddpruitt.blogspot.com/2009/09/gospel-driven-life.html

http://www.inlightofthegospel.org/?p=6120

http://yinkahdinay.wordpress.com/2009/09/22/coming-soon-gospel-driven-life/

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Let’s Try This One More Time

What is the relationship between evangelicals and the Reformation? It’s a topic that we’ve spent quite a lot of time on, but some folks are still confused.

It was recently brought to our attention that at the September 3rd debate between Roman Catholic Francis Beckwith and evangelical Baptist Timothy George, Beckwith said the following:

If you ask the editorial board of Modern Reformation magazine, evangelicals are the theological heirs of Lutheran and Reformed scholasticisms in all its forms in a variety of denominations. This, however, according to some would exclude most Pentecostals, Wesleyan, and Church of Christ bodies as well as some Anglican communities.

Well, interestingly enough Dr. Beckwith didn’t ask our editorial board (granted, it is difficult to find us most days, our residing in beautiful southern California, and all). If he had, we could have told him it was an interesting point, but not one that we shared. Not knowing Dr. Beckwith’s own views, we can only state that we think that evangelicals aren’t the theological heirs of the Reformation.

For more information about evangelicalism difficult relationship with the Reformation, be sure to take a look below at just a few of the many article we’ve published on this topic.

If you or Dr. Beckwith needs me, I’ll be at the beach.

To Be Or Not to Be: The Uneasy Relationship Between Reformed Christianity and American Evangelicalism.

The Battle Over the Label Evangelical

The Evangelical Narrative: Getting Rid of the Church (Don Williams, a regular MR contributor, will be offering a response to this article by D.G. Hart in the November/December 2009 issue. You can participate in the discussion by signing up for our Free Trial.)

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