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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!








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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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Looking for a Reformation Experience?

Friend of the Inn, Martin Downes, reports:

Over the summer we started a Curry Club for men at our church where we have ended the meal by listening to an episode of The White Horse Inn and having a discussion together about the issues raised. Great food, great listening, and plenty to discuss. I recommend it.

Thanks, Martin. And we recommend more supporter-based experiences like Martin’s Curry Club (and they can include girls, too; that whole cootie thing is WAY overrated).

Reformation, like the pilgrim life, happens best when it is done in community. What community experience can you create to help people discover the rich insights of the Reformation for themselves? Since we haven’t yet decided if or when we want to open up blog comments on this newest venture of ours, please post your ideas on Facebook or Twitter. We’ll begin featuring them on our website as places for people to get plugged-in.

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