White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

WHI-1164 | Dogma, Part 2

On this edition of the program we conclude our two-part discussion of dogma. No one can really escape theology. Even the idea that the study of theology is a waste of time is a theological statement. At the end of the day, the question is whether our ideas about God match his own revelation of himself in Scripture.

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A Happy Birthday for the Heidelberg Catechism

I’ve just returned from Heidelberg, Germany, where I joined brothers and sisters from around the world to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism.  In addition to illuminating papers and warm fellowship, we enjoyed one of the city’s several museum exhibits celebrating the anniversary.  Of special note was the Heidelberg Palace exhibit, “The Power of Faith: 450 Years of the Heidelberg Catechism.”

Frederick III, ruler of the Palatinate and imperial elector, was nicknamed “the pious” by fellow princes.  Embracing Reformed teaching, he was distressed with the low level of knowledge of even the basics of the Christian faith in his territory.  Drawing together the best theologians and pastors in the region, he oversaw (and even contributed to) the drafting of a catechism that would be taught in schools, churches, and homes.

Soon after publication in 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism was translated into various languages—including early modern Hebrew and Greek.  It soon enjoyed wide use in the English-speaking world as well.  Students learned this catechism at Oxford and Cambridge.  Today, it is more widely known and used in Asia, Africa, and the Americas than in Europe or even North America.  As my children repeat back the clear teaching of the gospel from this great catechism, I am reinvigorated in my own faith.

Yet in Germany itself, the story is rather different.

In Luther’s home state of Saxony-Anhalt, after nearly a century of atheistic indoctrination, only 19% of the population professes belief in God.  Yet even more tragic is the widespread unbelief in the west, under the auspices of a privileged but largely apostate Protestant Evangelical Church (EKD).  A union of Lutheran and Reformed bodies, the EKD and the Roman Catholic Church claimed 30% of the population each by the end of 2008.  Affiliation, however, may mean no more than having been baptized.  These Landeskirchen (established churches) continue to receive tax money to fund their undermining of the Christian faith.  In recent decades, there have been free (i.e., independent of the state) Lutheran bodies maintaining evangelical convictions, but Arminian Baptist and Pentecostal groups are much larger.

Across the nation, 45% say, “I believe there is a God,” while among the youth the percentage drops to 30%, and 34% are “unaffiliated.”    According to a 2010 Eurobarometer Poll, 55% of the total population claim to be atheists, agnostics, or “non-religious.”   Germany has always been the vanguard of intellectual, cultural, and religious trends on the continent.   What happens in Germany, for good or ill, has repercussions for the whole of Europe.

During my brief time in Heidelberg, I was impressed with the small group of committed believers who are longing and praying for a new Reformation.  Spearheading this event last week was the Free Reformed Church (Selbstündige Evangelisch-Reformierte Kirche) in Heidelberg with the Rev. Sebastian Heck.   I joined North American colleagues Joel Beeke, Lyle Bierma, Jason Van Vleet, and Jon Payne in giving some papers on the catechism, but for me it was definitely more blessed to receive than to give.

Among other speakers was Dr. Victor d’Assonville, an astute Reformed theologian.  He leads a new seminary that holds great promise as a center for sound training of the small but growing band of future ministers, evangelists, and teachers.   Students come from Lutheran and Reformed backgrounds and I had the pleasure of getting to know some of them at the conference.  Many were raised in East Germany, where atheism was the state ideology.   I was deeply moved by their stories of coming to understand the evangelical faith against all odds (including their own churches) and the depth of their zeal, knowledge, and clarity.

In other travels, I’ve seen first-hand the remarkable blessing of God on his means of grace.  There is a hunger for Reformation Christianity around the world.  And yet the land of the Reformation is now largely pagan.  There is a great need for prayers and financial support for small but zealously faithful ministry in Germany.

If you would like to help this work in Heidelberg, or if you know anyone in the area who is looking for a good Reformed church, contact Sebastian Heck at sebheck@mac.com.   The nascent seminary there has enormous potential as a catalyst for long-range gospel ministry, but it is struggling to find the necessary resources in the short term.  If you have an interest in supporting this work, please contact Dr. Victor E. d’Assonville at vicdas@rtsonline.de.

WHI-1163 | Dogma, Part 1

Many Christians in our day avoid the study of theology in favor of more practical concerns. Dogma, they say, is for eggheads who wish to put God in a box. On the contrary, we argue on this program, knowing who God is and what he has done is the basis of Christian experience. We will discuss the impossibility of having a personal relationship with God if we don’t know anything about him.

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Art, Atheists, and Altars to Unknown Gods

I remember it like it was yesterday. Seventeen years ago this month, I was appointed Chief Curator of my hometown university art museum after having finished a doctorate in the history of modern art. In the Sunday arts section of our local paper an article had announced my appointment. At church later that morning an elder, sitting in front of me, turned around and congratulated me. And then he said, “now you can take down all the nudes on display in the museum.”

This was just a foretaste of the tensions I would experience in the church as an evangelical working in the art world and writing about modern art. Most of these tensions have come from the church’s desire to use ‘good’ art to shape public policy and teach morality or to show how ‘bad’ art reflects a defective worldview and causes vice. When the church thinks about the role of art, it usually thinks of it as a tool for something else, something more important, something more ‘practical’, more ‘relevant’.

And, let’s face it, the church usually considers art to be the enemy anyway—it just cannot be trusted.  Art possesses the uncanny tendency to break down the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’, undoing the tidy emotional boxes we create to help us filter the pure, lovely and commendable from the slanderous and obscene. However, to spend time with art—to devote the effort to understanding it—usually results in refocusing our attention on our own sinfulness and recovering the dignity of our neighbor’s search for the Unknown God of which St. Paul speaks in Acts 17.

This might be why the church distrusts artists and the work they produce.  And this is why the most insightful and life-giving writing about art comes from outside the church—often a long way from the church. Such is the case with Camille Paglia—she loves art and she wants you to love it, too.

Glttering ImagesThat’s right, the same Camille Paglia who is a founding writer for Salon.com; the self-described “pro-sex, pro-porn, pro-art, pro-beauty, pro-pop” public intellectual and cultural provocateur who infuriates the Right and frustrates the Left.  That Paglia, who holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Yale University and teaches art history and the humanities at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, where she has taught since the mid-1980s.

Paglia’s book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars (Pantheon, 2012) is written for those who like the idea of liking art but have been turned off by the vulgarity, obscenity, and elitism of the art world, Glittering Images is for you.  In an interview with Salon.com about the book, Paglia observed, “As a longtime fan of talk radio, I’m very worried about the low opinion that conservative hosts and callers have of the American artist. Art is portrayed as a scam, a rip-off and snow job pushed by snobbish elites.”

And so she has written a modest book that she conceived as a “devotional” to revive popular interest in art history, which celebrates the creative imagination of human beings through time and place, but has vanished from public education and college curricula. She continues:

I’m providing a handbook to anyone—to people who never took an art history course or who haven’t thought about art since college. I want to do something very inviting, readable and non-threatening, with each chapter as short as possible.

Paglia has selected twenty-nine works of art to make her case, from a tomb painting of Egyptian Queen Nefertari and an icon of St. John Chrysostom to Warhol’s icon of Marilyn Monroe to, surprisingly, a scene from George Lucas’s movie, Revenge of the Sith.

Although it is written for a general audience confused by art, Glittering Images is not pedantic, condescending, or preachy. It is a personal, even vulnerable book. From the idiosyncratic choices of works of art to her distinctive way of interpreting them, Paglia reveals her life-long love of these works, desiring nothing more than to share her passion.

MondrianAnd that passion leaves plenty of room for the reader to form his or her own experiences and opinions. Unlike most writing about art, Paglia’s is expansive, creating space for her reader to join her.  She doesn’t presuppose agreement, only curiosity and openness. Each of her twenty-nine meditations end in an evocative manner that expands rather than restricts the potential for further reflection, such as this conclusion from her meditation on the Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930):

His work was a process of discovery where color and form were explored for their own sake…But Mondrian’s floating, weightless images vibrate with an internal drama. Do his black lines define and limit his colors? Or is color, like a divine spark, an autonomous force pushing its way toward life? (131)

For an atheist, Paglia’s writing is surprisingly comfortable with the religious, the transcendent, and the spiritual while actively seeking out the metaphysical, mysterious, and inexplicable. And indeed, Paglia has considerable respect for organized religions, calling them “vast symbol systems containing deep truths about human experience” (xii-xiii). In fact, in an important essay, “Religion and the Arts in America” (Arion 15/1 (2007), Paglia argues that the arts need religion in order to thrive.

de Maria

In another provocative conclusion, Paglia takes one of the strangest, least art-like works made by an American artist, Walter de Maria’s installation in New Mexico, The Lightening Field (1977) and—as if responding to the incredulous reader—“what makes this art?”—she concludes:

When De Maria’s metal poles are nested in green ground cover and spring wildflowers, The Lightning Field seems like one of Emily Dickinson’s haunted landscapes where the dead are frozen witnesses to eternity. The grid is the game, a playful mapping of life’s mysteries, which art accepts but science can never fully explain (170).

Monet

Paglia’s interpretations embody her claim (or is it a confession?) that art “unites the spiritual and material realms” (xiii). Unlike many art critics and art historians, whose atheism or agnosticism spreads to marginalizing the role of religion and spirituality in the work of the artists’ they study, Paglia refuses to dismiss them as unimportant (including their atheism). For example, in her meditation on Claude Monet’s Irises (1900), painted late in the artist’s life from his backyard garden, she writes:

Like Wordsworth, Monet was an atheist wary of ideological systems. There is a luminous pantheism in his landscape paintings. His concentration on the act of seeing reaffirmed the power of the senses. Art was his faith, repairing the broken connection between man and nature (100).

Paglia recognizes that art itself is a confession and an act of faith, which seems to demand the language of religion and spirituality to describe.

It is often said that every work of art is a self-portrait, revealing something hidden about the artist. But when the writer opens herself to an experience with a work of art and digs deep to articulate that experience, what results is also a form of self-portraiture, an autobiography activated in through an experience with the work of art. Art criticism is as much about the critic as it is the work of art that is being interpreted.

In his poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (1908) by Rilke, the narrator is confronted by a work of art that exclaims, “you must change your life.” When we are confronted by a work of art, it makes a claim on us, it provokes our realization that by standing in front of a work of art, we are being addressed, not just by a painting or sculpture, but by God and by our neighbor.

It is thus not much of a stretch to claim that Paglia’s sensitive art writing is also a confession of faith.  That faith is in art certainly, but perhaps in something else as well, something she can only feel in the art she experiences. One might be tempted to add art museums and artist’s studios to foxholes as places not conducive to atheism. To her credit, Paglia knows these risks but she’s willing to take them for the sake of describing her experience with these artifacts to her reader faithfully and truthfully. And with every entry, Paglia’s response to these works of art affirms the goodness of the world that lay just beyond its brokenness and alienation.

Paglia’s meditations on these twenty-nine works thus offer plenty of room for thinking about art from a distinctively Christian perspective, that is, provided we abandon our penchant for instrumental worldview-ish thinking that reduces art merely to the expression of an artist’s religious beliefs or as a tool for something we deem “more important.”

For Luther, our justification by grace through faith frees us to love our neighbor through our work, restoring the dignity of those trades and jobs deemed irrelevant, unimportant, or unworthy of serious Christian involvement. Because God is busy at work in the world, everywhere, all of our work, from cleaning houses and middle management to running for congress or painting pictures are simultaneously irrelevant and of the utmost importance.

For North American evangelicals, culture is useful only insofar as it bears on politics. Because God has chosen to work through the “foolish” and “weak” things of the world (1 Cor. 1: 27), the gospel releases the arts from the burden of relevance and practicality; of what we believe is relevant and practical, how we believe God should be at work in the world (i.e., through the heroic and powerful).  This allows both those that make art and those that devote time to looking at and studying art the dignity of recognizing that God is at work, even in the most unlikely and unexpected of ways—in the artist’s studio and even in the writing of Camille Paglia.

(Dr. Daniel A. Siedell is on staff at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, where he works with LIBERATE, Tullian Tchividjian’s resource ministry.  He is the author of several books, including God in the Gallery (Baker 2008) and is currently at work on a monograph with artist Makoto Fujimura and a book project with theologian William Dyrness on modern art with IVP Academic Press.)

Not Having a Righteousness of My Own, Blog 4 of 4

In this fourth and final blog entry on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I’d like to draw your attention to verses 10 and 11 of chapter 3:

Phil 3:10-11 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

When was the last time any of us prayed to “share in the sufferings of Christ”? Paul is ready to be identified with Christ, so much so that he even considers it an honor to suffer for his sake. In fact, this is actually a common theme in the New Testament (Matt 5:10-12, Rom. 8:17, Phil 1:29, 1 Pet 2:20, 3:14, 4:16), a theme that is not particularly in sync with the 21st century message of having “your best life now.”

Phil. 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.

Not that I have already obtained all this. This is a wonderful verse that shows that we are declared to be righteous (positionally) while still being unrighteous (inherently). This is at the heart of what Luther was getting at when he described the Christian as “simul iustus et piccator” (simultaneously both saint and sinner).

Again, Catholic theology had taught (and still does) that a person who makes use of the gracious gifts that God offers through the church actually becomes inherently righteous. That person remains righteous until he or she commits a venial sin, and that allows the grace to leak out of one’s life. Mortal sins, on the other hand, immediately drain away all of your grace. In either case, a person can fix the leak by means of penance, confession, etc., and then replenish his or her supply of grace by attending mass, receiving absolution, obtaining indulgences, performing good works, etc. Since no one can know whether he or she will die in a state of grace, one cannot have assurance of salvation; in fact, that very idea is called the sin of presumption.

In contrast, the Protestant Reformers argued that justification, at its most basic level, was a legal declaration (such as a “not guilty” verdict). From the perspective of God’s infinite holiness, “there is no one who does good” (Rom 3:12), all of us by nature deserve a guilty verdict, and only those in Christ are granted a full pardon, based completely upon God in his infinite mercy. With Isaiah, we confess that Christ makes “many to be accounted righteous, and bears their iniquities.” This is also the testimony of the author to the Hebrews, who in chapter 10 writes, “by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”

So if we’re already perfect, why do we need to be made holy? The answer is that both justification and sanctification are in view in this passage. We are first declared to be positionally righteous, perfect and acceptable before God because of the work of Christ. In reality, we are still sinners struggling here on earth. Like Peter before us, we all have denied Christ, sometimes in subtle ways, other times more explicitly. But Jesus is conforming sinners into his own image; he is sanctifying us and transforming us day by day. We’re still imperfect, but we’re slowly being conformed to the image of Christ.

That is what Paul is saying here. Paul has not already been made perfect, but he presses on because he’s treated as if he was. He’s awaiting an inheritance that he didn’t earn.

Phil 3:13-16 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

Pressing towards the goal. Paul here is thinking of the Christian life, along with all of his personal difficulties associated with preaching the gospel, as a long distance race. Though he feels nothing but pain in the here and now, his thoughts are in heaven with Christ and the joy of victory.

In verse 15, Paul does something very strange and counter-cultural (at least as far we’re concerned). He seems to value maturity. Today, not merely in the culture at large but also in the church, we seem to value immaturity and juvenile ways of thinking. We believe that worship should be like a rock concert with lighting effects and fog machines. We believe sermons should be funny, attention-grabbing stage performances. We freak out when our “best life now” doesn’t materialize.

According to Paul, maturity changes the way we view things. God, he says, will be at work in you to help you to mature and to see things more clearly.

Phil. 3:17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.

Grace and Redemption are at the heart of Christianity, but that’s not all there is. Yes, Christ alone is our righteousness. This is our promised inheritance that will be fully realized and experienced one day in the not-too-distant future.

But this inheritance also implies an adoption. If we have been adopted, we need to live in a manner consistent with our new family identity. Of course, this new life does not win our inheritance, since we’ve already been adopted. Therefore the new life is simply the grateful response of a heart set free. This is why Paul teaches Gentile believers in particular to follow the pattern of life he set before them. Though it’s not part of our justification, it is an important aspect of our discipleship!

It’s important to remember that sometimes even elders and pastors do not live in ways that are consistent with their profession. Paul writes of such an instance in Galatians 2:14 when he observed that even Peter had stopped eating with Gentiles, fearing the circumcision party. “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Thus, for Christians, even our sanctification is not primarily rooted in law, but is rooted in learning to recognize the truth of the gospel and those parts of our conduct that are out of step with our new identity.

Phil 3:18-19 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.

There are some striking parallels here to what we find in Matt 16. Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” Peter responds by saying, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Then, after Jesus spoke a few words about his coming death in Jerusalem, Peter rebuked him, saying, “This will never happen to you!” How did Jesus respond? “Get behind me Satan! You don’t have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Peter was rebuked harshly, as if he was Satan himself, because he was speaking as an enemy of the cross, and his mind was on earthy things.

Let’s face it. We often live as enemies of the cross of Christ with our minds set upon earthly things. We sometimes identify God with our appetites, our feelings, or our opinions, even as Christians. Sometimes, like Peter, we have an immature, man-centered—or perhaps even Satanic—view of things.

But if Peter can be saved, we can be saved. At the end of the day, we are not saved by our own righteousness but by Christ’s. When confronted with a sin of this type, we should take the posture of David in Ps. 51, who not only confessed his sin, but also asked God to “create in him a clean heart, and to renew a right spirit within him.” As Jesus taught, his disciples are declared “clean” not on the basis of any work they have performed, but because of the words that he spoke to them (Jn 15:3). After all, if the job of spiritual renovation and cleansing were up to us, at the end of the day who would be able to say, “I have made my heart pure, I am clean from sin”? (Prov 20:9).

Phil 3:20-21 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

The residents of Philippi had been granted Roman citizenship, along with all the rights and privileges thereunto. Here Paul makes use of this concept to speak of something much more important. If we believe in Christ, flee from our own righteousness, and refuse to add anything to his finished work on our behalf, then we are then declared to be citizens of heaven. One day in the not-too-distant future, he will grant us all the privileges associated with this new citizenship, and we will all be transformed to become like he is.

Modern Reformation Conversations–Paul on The Road To MoMA (Part 2)

If art isn’t meant to fit within the clearly-established boundaries of a well-regulated life, then how exactly do we interact with it?  How do we ‘experience’ it?  If art doesn’t have an explicitly pedagogical or pragmatic purpose, why does it exist?

A common approach has been to verify the artist’s worldview—if you understand the way that Donatello viewed the world, you’ll probably be better able to understand his work.  This method has its merits—if you know that Ernest Hemingway was passionate about truth and honesty in writing, it’s fairly certain that you’ll have a deeper understanding of A Farewell To Arms, and if you can appreciate Jane Austen’s critique of social mores in Regency England, you’ll be less likely to dismiss her novels as chick lit.

But there’s a problem with that approach—it focuses the viewer’s (or the reader’s) attention on the artist, and not the art itself.  Certainly, the artist himself is present (in some fashion) in the work, but that doesn’t mean that the work is absolutely and exclusively self-referential.  As Americans, we have a very strong sense of the pragmatic, and we get very uneasy if what we’re looking at isn’t easily classified.  So, if we can’t make sense of the object, we’ll look to its author for answers.  This can be helpful—the author, after all, knows more about it than the observer—but we must remember that when it comes to art (be it painting, sculpture, or film) the author wants us to interact with the object.  It’s the painting that’s speaking; not the artist, and since its language is that of color, form, light and shadow, we must be prepared to listen a little harder and focus a little longer if we want to hear what it’s saying.

In this interview, Dr. Siedell discusses the role of the Christian art critic, the way to love our neighbor, and how to learn about art.

P.S.  For those of our friends who haven’t ready access to a museum, we’ve picked out a pretty great book to get you started, which Dr. Siedell has kindly reviewed for us—we’ll be posting it soon, so stay tuned!

Modern Reformation Conversations–Paul On The Road To MoMA (Part 1)

It’s a pretty big anachronism, but it’s an interesting question—if Paul went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, what would he think?  How would he interact with Kerstin Brätsch’s Matchpoint?  What would he have to say about Cheyney Thompson’s Chronochrome Set 10?  How would Christians today interpret Alfredo Jaar’s Lament of the Images or Rachel Harrison’s Alexander the Great?

Americans tend to be somewhat befuddled when it comes to art—we understand it as an outlet for creativity (Pinterest!) and readily assent to its therapeutic value, but certain art critics would question our ability to understand and dialogue with modern art on its own terms.  Countries like France and Italy as well as Egypt and Turkey guard their art as priceless national and social treasures; Americans look at the works of Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock and are either confused or appalled that soup cans and paint drops are considered monuments of human creativity.

There’s a reason for this difference (which, for brevity’s sake, I won’t go into here), and it’s a good reason—the question that we want to discuss is, ‘What are Christians to do with modern art?’  Is it OK if it’s not obscene?  What’s obscene?  Is Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus pornographic—if so, is all nudity verboten?  What about violence?  Francisco Goya’s The Third of May is stark and violent, but so are Quentin Tarantino films—is OK to look at the former, but not the latter?

We sat down with Dan Siedell, visiting professor of Christ and Culture at Knox Theological Seminary and author of God In The Gallery (Baker Academic, 2008) to discuss Edvard Munch, Thomas Kinkade, and the importance of listening.  Enjoy!

P.S. If you want to read more of Dan’s work on popular Christian art, you should click this.

WHI-1162 | Found in Christ, Part 2

In Philippians 3, Paul writes about obtaining a righteousness that is not his own but, rather, a righteousness “which is through faith in Christ.” On this program we will unpack this entire chapter and its implications for our understanding of justification and the Christian life.

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Not Having a Righteousness of My Own, Part 3

In the last blog piece I discussed Paul’s use of the word “dung” to describe not his sins, but his righteousness. He goes on to say that he desires to be “found in [Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” (Phil 3:9)

Here, we are confronted with one of the crucial components of the gospel message. Sometimes Catholics will argue that the Protestant doctrine of justification amounts to a “legal fiction.” That is, if you say that you are still a sinner but that you are righteous “in Christ” (what Luther called simul justus et peccator), then you are actually telling a kind of untruth or fiction.

But this criticism actually exposes a critical flaw. If our doctrine is to be condemned on the grounds of a legal fiction due to our belief in the idea that we are declared righteous while we are actually not, then what are we to do with the idea that Jesus was considered a sinner when he was in fact personally righteous? In other words, if you stick with this argument, you’ll ultimately undermine the substitutionary atonement.

The idea of an alien righteousness is the witness of both the prophets and the apostles. Paul here is focusing not on his own works, but on Christ’s. Similarly, Jeremiah wrote of coming day when a righteous branch would finally spring up out of the house of David, resulting in salvation for God’s people. “And this is the name by which he will be called, ‘The Lord is our righteousness’” (Jer 23:6).

This is also the witness of the early church. Some have tried to argue that Luther came up with this idea of justification by an imputed righteousness. Though it is true that this particular doctrine had been obscured for centuries (and had in a real sense been recovered by Luther), we find it clearly articulated in the writings of various church fathers. A good example of this is Mathetes, who observed in 130 AD:

Christ Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

This idea of the great exchange, though clearly taught in Scripture, has at various points been controversial in the church. This was especially true at the time of the Reformation. In a tract called “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” John Calvin summarizes the thinking of his day:

It’s true Jesus is called a Redeemer, but this is understood in a manner which implies that men also, by their own free will, redeem themselves from the bondage of sin and death. True, he is called righteousness and salvation, but in a way that men can still procure salvation for themselves, by the merit of their works… True, Christ is said to have reconciled us to the Father, but with this reservation, that men, by their own satisfactions, buy off the punishments which they owe to the justice of God. When supplementary aid is sought… no more honor is paid to Christ than to saints such as Cyprian or Cyricius. For, in making up the treasury of the Church, the merits of Christ and of martyrs are thrown together in the same lump.

This Christ and this approach is exactly what frustrated Paul about the Judaizers. The Judaizers said that, in addition to believing in Jesus, one also needs to be circumcised in order to be saved. Unfortunately, this same spirit is plaguing the church in our day, even in Reformed circles. There are some who teach, for example, that we are saved by Christ, and by our own obedience or faithfulness to the covenant, and that, on the last day, the basis of our final justification will partly rest upon our good works.

But Paul does not say that if we do good works, we will be justified, but rather, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). Peter also addresses this in his first epistle when he says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…” (1Pet 1:3-4). It’s an inheritance, not a wage; it’s rooted in God’s mercy, not our works; and it’s in heaven right now, waiting for us, rather than something that we currently possess.

In Phil 3:10-11, Paul then says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Here again we’re met with the verb “to know.” Many Christians in our day might wish to state this a little differently, something to the effect of, “I want to experience Christ and the power of his resurrection.” It’s certainly true that our knowledge of Christ has an experiential dimension to it (since we don’t merely know things about our savior, but we know him in relationship). But when “experience” or “relationship” becomes unmoored from doctrine and content, it quickly turns into mysticism, which is a huge problem in our time.

In the next blog post, we’ll draw some conclusions as we finish up with Philippians chapter 3.

Not Having a Righteousness of My Own, Part 2

In the last installment of this blog series, we introduced Paul’s letter to the Philippians as a companion to our current White Horse Inn series. In this piece, and for the remaining three installments, we’ll be focusing exclusively on Philippians chapter 3. In this chapter, Paul walks us through his own background as a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” a background which he ultimately presents as a hindrance to the gospel.

In the opening of chapter 3, Paul writes:

Phil. 3:1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. 2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.

Who is Paul referring to as “dogs” in verse two? Jewish people regularly described Gentiles as “dogs,” but here Paul is using this word in a different sense. He says, “Look out for the dogs… those who mutilate the flesh.” This phrase might be mysterious on its own, but the next verse goes on to explain that he is thinking of the circumcision party. Also referred to as the Judaizers, these were Jewish believers in Christ who taught that a person needed to continue to keep all the laws and ceremonies of Moses in order to be saved. Paul addresses this issue most clearly in his epistle to the Galatians, even to the point of calling it another gospel (Gal 1:6).

What’s amazing here is that Paul uses the word “dogs,” which had formerly been used to describe Gentiles or those “outside the covenant,” including Jews who professed faith in Jesus’ messianic identity. Paul is saying here that race doesn’t matter and, ultimately, neither does denominational affiliation. Being Jewish is not enough, nor is belonging to a Bible-believing church. It’s not even enough to believe in Jesus if you end up adding your own works to the finished work of Christ. This is what places a person outside the covenant, and it is why Paul refers to these Judaizers as “dogs.”

3 For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—

In Colossians chapter 2, Paul explains more fully what he means by this idea of “the real circumcision.” Starting with verse 11, he says,

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh [literally: in the stripping off of the body of flesh], by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

What Paul is saying in this text is that there is no need for the ceremonial act of circumcision, since this particular blood oath covenant was merely a temporal placeholder that pointed to the ultimate and eternal blood oath covenant that we find in the cross of Christ. He suffered the stripping away not merely of the foreskin, but of his entire body, and this greater circumcision becomes ours by faith.

Phil 3:3 For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh

Paul here appears to be echoing Christ’s words to the woman at the well: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). In John 6:63 Jesus says that “the spirit gives life, the flesh profits nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Later, in John 15, Jesus says,that the Holy Spirit ” will testify about me” when he comes. Worshiping by the Spirit of God, then, is not related to ecstatic or exuberant worship experiences, as it is often misunderstood in our day. Instead, it is directly related to those who, as Paul says here in our text, “glory in Christ and put no confidence in the flesh.”

Phil 3:4 …though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless.

We know, of course, that Paul was not inherently righteous or blameless. In Rom 7: “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.” So here, when he speaks of blamelessness under the law, he is likely thinking exclusively of outward conformity. Inwardly, he was unclean. This is exactly what Jesus regularly communicated to the Pharisees during his earthly ministry: “Woe to you, for you are like whitewashed tombs which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt 23:27).

Phil 3:7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

Any goodness that Paul had claimed previously he is now putting in the debit column. All his outward obedience, all his zeal, all of it, he says, is worthless apart from Christ. Concerning his fellow Jews, Paul writes in Romans 10: “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:2-4). In Phil. 3:8, Paul speaks of the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Some people in our day don’t like to focus on this knowledge element, saying “I don’t want to know about God,” or “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.” But zeal without knowledge is a serious problem. At the end of the day, we cannot trust someone we know nothing about, for otherwise we end up having faith in the idea of relationship rather than in Christ himself.

Paul goes so far as to call all his outward obedience rubbish. Not wanting to offend our sensibilities, most English Bible translators end up choosing the least offensive of the various translation possibilities for the word Paul uses here. In actuality, skubalon is a little cruder. According one Greek lexicon, the way this word is used by other ancient writers of the period makes the sense closer to “dung, filth, excrement, manure, or crud.” And what’s interesting is that Paul isn’t merely thinking of all his sin as dung, but his righteousness. We find this same sentiment in Isaiah 64:6: “all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags.”

In the next installment of this series, we’ll continue this discussion of Philippians chapter 3. We will pick up in verse 9, where Paul places his trust in a righteousness that is not his own.

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