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Holiness Wars: Antinomianism in Church History

This is part two of four in a short series on Antinomianism. Read part one “What Is Antinomianism?”.


Like Moses (Dt 6:5; Lev 19:18), Jesus taught that the whole law was summarized by the command to love God and neighbor (Mat 22:37). He came not to abolish but to fulfill the law (Mat 5:17-20). Nevertheless, Jesus was famously accused by the religious leaders as an “antinomian” for refusing to accord the same weight to the extrabiblical rules of the elders. Evidently, Paul, too, was accused of “antinomianism” by his critics. “And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying” (Rom 3:8; cf. 6:1). Encouraging believers in God’s grace, nevertheless warned them against “using your freedom as a cover-up for evil” (1 Pet 2:16). Peter adds that “lawless people” were using the gospel as an excuse for license; “ignorant and unstable,” they were twisting the Scriptures “to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:16-18). It should be noted that the charge of antinomianism and the reality of a lawlessness based on Scripture-twisting could only arise perpetually throughout the church’s history because the gospel of free justification in Christ apart from works is so clearly taught in Scripture.

As Packer’s first type indicates, the first form of explicit antinomianism was a stripe of Gnosticism. Gnostics identified the body with evil, the prison-house of the soul, longing to be reunited with the cosmic Christ (distinguished from the human Jesus). For some, this meant extreme asceticism and mistreatment of the body; for others, licentiousness, since it didn’t matter what the body did, as long as the spirit was pure. The church father Augustine was famously converted from a life of debauchery in Manichaean Gnosticism.

Martin Luther and his colleagues faced a more “Christ-centered antinomianism” in their day. Luther compared reason to a drunk man who fell off one side of his horse and got back on only to fall off on the other side. No sooner had the reformers proclaimed the liberating power of God’s free grace than “certain fanatical spirits” announced that the law was no longer necessary for believers. Coining the term “antinomian” (against law) for the first time, Luther denounced Johannes Agricola and others who defended this view. (In fact, Agricola even sued the reformer for slander, though he eventually dropped the suit.) While believers are free of its condemnation, the law remains God’s standard of living and plays its distinctive role together with the gospel in our lifelong repentance. Luther wrote, “Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever…Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!” Antinomianism is a “blasphemy and sacrilege,” Luther thundered in his “First Disputation Against the Antinomians” (1537). The debate reached its climax in 1539 with Luther’s book, Against the Antinomians.

A second antinomian controversy erupted in Lutheran circles when the “Philippists” (those who claimed Philip Melanchthon, though with dubious warrant) denied the imputation of Christ’s active obedience and turned the gospel into a form of law while dispensing with the law itself. The fifth and sixth articles of the Formula of Concord affirmed the law-gospel distinction, rejected antinomianism and affirmed the third use of the law (to guide believers), which Melanchthon had in fact systematized before Calvin.

Actually, Packer’s second type (“Spirit-centered”) is close to the first type (Gnostic dualism). In both, antinomianism is virtually indistinguishable from extreme mysticism. In varying degrees of intensity, this impulse runs through various medieval sects to some Anabaptist groups and radical Pietists, who mediated it to a host of “enthusiasts” in Germany, England (especially in the Protectorate), and America.

At the time of the Westminster Assembly (convened by Parliament in 1643), there were a few hyper-Calvinists suspected of this “enthusiastic” taint. This version exhibits characteristics both of Spirit-centered and Christ-centered antinomianism. They were usually called antinomians because at least some of them held that the elect are justified from all eternity (even apart from faith), emphasized inner experience of the Spirit over all external ministry, and the freedom from the moral law’s direction. This identification of extreme mysticism with antinomianism was especially evident in New England’s “Antinomian controversy,” provoked especially by the teachings and trial of Anne Hutchison in 1637.

There certainly were some bona fide antinomians afoot during this era. However, they were not in the mainstream. In other cases, the charge was brought by those with a more legalistic bent—typically identified as “neonomians” for turning the gospel into a “new law.” For example, Richard Baxter accused John Owen of antinomianism and Owen returned the favor by warning about Baxter’s neonomianism. On the basis of the Reformed confession, there is no basis of any charge against Owen, though his appraisal of Baxter seems justified. Similarly, the New England elders may have been justified in their concerns about Anne Hutchison’s alleged visions, but even if John Cotton—a distinguished English Puritan recently transplanted—sounded antinomian at points, it was mainly because the New England elders were in fact neonomians.

In many cases, the antinomian charge was leveled by neonomians against classic Reformed pastors. A classic and tragic example is the so-called “Marrow Controversy.” Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity (1645) had enjoyed a wide readership among Puritans, including commendations from the likes of Jeremiah Burroughs. Aside from a brief polemic against the sabbatarian position, the book reflected typical Reformed conclusions. By the early 18th century, the Church of Scotland was influenced by neonomianism and the “moderate” party, influenced by the Enlightenment. Coming upon Fisher’s volume, Scottish minister Thomas Boston reprinted it in 1718, with a preface from the great James Hog. However, the 1720 General Assembly declared it “antinomian” and in spite of the arguments of Hog, Boston, and ten other leaders, including Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine, this decision was reaffirmed in 1722. This led to a schism in the 1730s, forming the Associate Presbytery. A position that was considered standard Reformed orthodoxy in 1645, even by members of the Westminster Assembly, had become “antinomian” by the Church of Scotland only a half-century later.

Arminians had long vilified Reformed theology as either explicitly or implicitly antinomian. Arminius himself had first provoked criticism by denying that Romans 7 could possibly describe the experience of a genuine believer. His followers have maintained that Reformed soteriology inevitably leads to carelessness and vitiates the seriousness of the call to holiness. William Law argued the same in 1729 in A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) and A Practical Treatise Upon Christian Perfection (1726). Indebted to the radical mysticism of writers like Jacob Bohme, Law denied justification and at times verges on Pelagianism. Though no Pelagian, John Wesley expressed his debt to these works and he sought Law’s personal counsel on various occasions. In John Wesley’s view, Calvinism leads inexorably to antinomianism—a view he maintained especially in sharp polemics with Augustus Toplady (Anglican minister and author of the hymn “Rock of Ages”). His protege, John Fletcher, carried forward the charge with his book, Five Checks to Antinomianism (1770). The antinomian charge was renewed by Charles Finney and has been a staple of Arminian polemics to this day.

Yet Wesleyanism has generated its own form of antinomianism. Drawing from Wesley’s doctrine of entire sanctification, the Higher Life or “Victorious Life” movement emphasizes the mystical rather than activistic side of Wesley’s thought. “Let go and let God” is not a maxim that Wesley would have countenanced, but it reflects the emphasis of medieval and pietistic quietism. The key Wesleyan ingredient is the idea of sanctification as a “second blessing,” a separate experience subsequent to conversion, that makes it possible for believers to live above all known sin. Associated with the Keswick conferences in England and America, this movement emphasizes that this blessing comes in “full surrender,” as the self of the believer is replaced with the indwelling Christ and his Spirit.

In more recent years, a few writers from the dispensationalist camp have argued that these two blessings are not only separate events, but that one may make a decision for Christ (“making Jesus one’s personal Savior”) without bearing the fruit of faith in good works (“making Jesus Lord of one’s life”). The latter, a “carnal Christian,” may even no longer believe in Christ, yet be eternally secure. The call is to become a “victorious Christian,” by “letting Jesus have his way,” but sanctification is not necessarily given with justification in our union with Christ. It should be added that in this construal, “eternal security” is based not on God’s unconditional grace of election, redemption, and effectual calling, but on the believer’s having fulfilled the terms of God’s offer of salvation by making a decision for Christ.

In my next post, I’ll explore the rich summary of sanctification in the Reformed and Lutheran confessions, especially in the light of current controversies. Read part three, “Antinomianism and Reformation Confessions”

Holiness Wars: What Is Antinomianism?

Writing at a time of intense controversy and division within Reformed ranks, the English Puritan Richard Sibbes wrote, “Factions breed factions.” We are called to the peace and purity of the church, but when is the concern for peace a crutch for compromise and when does our appeal to the church’s purity become a cloak for own pride and dogmatism?

Of course, we all say that we should find our unity around primary truth, but I know of no historical debate in which a partisan advocated schism in the name of “secondary matters.” Repeatedly these days I hear church leaders dismiss important age-old debates because they are not “gospel issues,” as if we had not been commanded by our Lord to “teach them everything I have commanded you.” At the same time, some of the most divisive issues in our churches today concern matters that are not even addressed clearly in God’s Word.

One issue that is clearly addressed in Scripture is sanctification: the work of the Spirit through his Word in uniting us to Christ and giving us the grace to grow up into Christ, bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Given the centrality of justification to the Reformation debate, it is not surprising that Reformed, Lutheran and other evangelical bodies are crystal-clear in their confessions and catechisms on this point. In some circles, though, it is at least assumed in practice that our confessions aren’t quite as clear or as emphatic on sanctification. Reformation theology is great in defining the gospel, but when it comes to the Christian life, we need to supplement it with healthy doses of Thomas a Kempis, Spener, Wesley, and their contemporary voices.

In my view, this would be a tragic conclusion to draw. However, before I make that case, it’s important to define antinomianism. After all, it’s one of those labels that is often thrown around carelessly today, as in previous eras. This is the first of a 4-part series of posts on antinomianism. After defining it, I’ll offer a very brief history of the debates in church history. Then, I’ll offer some contemporary reflections by drawing on the rich summary of Reformed teaching on sanctification in the Reformed and Lutheran confessions. Finally, I will discuss sanctification and its relationship with the gospel.

Defining Antinomianism(s)

Literally “against law,” antinomianism is the view that the moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments is no longer binding on Christians. More generally, antinomianism may be seen as a characteristic of human rebellion against any external authority. In this sense, ironically, we are by nature antinomians and legalists since the fall: rejecting God’s command, while seeking to justify ourselves by our own criteria. The modern age is especially identified by the demand for freedom from all constraints. “Be true to yourself” is the modern creed. The rejection of any authority above the self, including obvious biblical norms, is as evident in some denominations as in the wider culture.

In technical terms, however, antinomianism has referred historically more to theory than to practice. For the most part, few of those suspected of this heresy have been charged with dissolute lives, although the concern is that an error in doctrine will inevitably work itself out practically.

One of the best summaries of the different varities of antinomianism is offered by J. I. Packer in his Concise Theology (Tyndale House, 2001), pages 178-80: (1) “Dualistic Antinomainism,” associated with Gnosticism, which treats the body (and its actions) as insignificant; (2) “Spirit-centered Antinomianism,” which views the inner promptings of the Spirit as sufficient apart from the external Word; (3) “Christ-centered Antinomianism,” which “argues that God sees no sin in believers, because they are in Christ, who kept the law for them, and therefore what they actually do makes no difference, provided that they keep believing”; (4) “Dispensational Antinomianism,” which denies that in the “church age” believers are obligated to the moral law; (5) “Situationist Antinomianism,” which teaches that love is the only rule and that duties (not just their application) will therefore vary according to circumstance.

In my next post, I’ll explore some of the examples of these varieties of antinomianism—and false charges of antinomianism—as they have played out in church history.

Mockingbird Conference – Earlybird Special

If you are interested in going to the Fifth Annual Mockingbird Conference in New York City from April 19-21, today is the last day for the “earlybird rates.” Dr. Horton is the keynote speaker in this conference centered around “Honesty.” To register and for more information head to the Mockingbird Conference Homepage.

To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. The first product of self-knowledge is humility.
Flannery O’Connor

To live outside the law, you must be honest.
Bob Dylan

Steve Bridges Memorial

Comedian Steve Bridges was found dead in his home in LA on March 3, after returning from a trip to Hong Kong.

Many knew Steve as the impersonator of recent presidents, including Mr. Obama. In fact, he performed side-by-side with President George W. Bush at a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Widely respected not only for his work but for his friendship and character, Steve was honored recently in a tribute by Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show,” where Steve frequently appeared as a guest.

The White Horse Inn knew Steve from his several appearances as the voices of famous evangelical leaders calling in to the program. I knew Steve from college days. We became friends the first week we arrived on campus and were roommates at Biola. We were scheduled to have lunch this week and I join his family, friends, and fans in mourning his death at 48. More important than everything else that can be said about Steve is that he loved God because God first loved him–he knew, embraced, and celebrated the gospel of Christ and this hope fueled his life and vocation.

To offer our own tribute to Steve and thanks for his friendship, the White Horse Inn is offering a series of clips from the various programs where he joined us over the years. Of course, it’s free of charge to download and pass around as you wish.

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MP3 Audio to download

WHI-1093 | The Lord’s Prayer (Part 1)

Why is it important to pray? What does it mean to refer to God as “our Father”? On this edition of White Horse Inn, the hosts begin their study of the Lord’s Prayer as they continue their series through Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

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Thy Kingdom Comer
Kim Riddlebarge
Thine is the Kingdom
Michael Horton

MUSIC SELECTION

Matthew Smith

PROGRAM AUDIO

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Watch the Ligonier National Conference Live!

The team is on the road again this week. This time to the Ligonier Ministries annual national conference in Orlando, FL. The theme of this year’s conference is, “The Christian Mind.” (Click here for more information).

We’re grateful to Ligonier for inviting our entire panel of White Horse Inn hosts to conduct a live taping of the program on Friday afternoon at 12:40 pm (EST). You can tune in to the live taping via the video feed below.

Immediately after the live taping, Mike Horton will join several other conference speakers, including Dr. R. C. Sproul, for a question and answer session at 2:25 pm (EST).

At 4:20 p.m. (EST), Dr. Horton will deliver his lecture, entitled “The Fear Factor.”

Plan on joining us in Orlando, no matter where you live! Ligonier is offering a live video feed of the conference for a donation in any amount or if you fulfill a few other requirements. To donate or watch click on the image below.

WHI-1092 | True & False Piety

In Matthew 6, Jesus warns his followers about various forms of “showy” righteousness: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them.” Elsewhere, Jesus criticized the Pharisees for similar reasons, saying that outwardly they were like beautiful decorated tombs, yet inwardly were full of dead bones (Matt. 23:27). On this program, the hosts discuss this section of the Sermon on the Mount and evaluate some of the ways in which contemporary Christians are guilty of breaking this command.

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Who Am I Really?
Michael Horton
The Higher Life
Michael Horton

MUSIC SELECTION

Zac Hicks

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International Women’s Day

I live in a pipe culture.  Many of my male friends will spend hours discussing the relative merits of different bowls and stems with the same passion others reserve for rock climbing and Apple products.  There was one memorable evening when my friends Brian and Nigel tried to convince me to try my hand at it – I declined, on the grounds that I didn’t think it ladylike (and I had no idea how to do it).  “Come on,” said Nigel, taking another sip of port.  “Dorothy Sayers smoked a pipe.”  “Any woman who spent that much time with British academics in the 1930s had to learn to smoke, whether it was considered ladylike or not,” I responded.  Since Sayers had already singled herself out by graduating from Oxford, dabbling in popular theology and spending the majority of her time in the company of men (singularly gifted men, at that), she may not have considered pipe-smoking the most extraordinary thing she’d ever done.  Being ordinary was never really her scene, so it’s always fascinated me that the ‘ordinariness’ of women should have been a particular theme to emerge from her writing.

It’s that very subject that’s the focus of her essays, ‘Are Women Human?’ and ‘The Human Not-Quite-Human’.  As someone who loves Sayers’ wry, acerbic style, I feel free to say that I’m very glad the editor of the Eerdmans edition put the latter address first, rather than former.  Adopting an uncharacteristically caustic tone, she launches into a Swiftian tirade against the prevailing male attitude toward women at that time, inviting the reader to imagine the grace with which he would be bear his every action, habit, and taste being commented upon in terms of his gender:

“Probably no man has ever troubled to imagine how strange his life would appear to himself if it were unrelentingly assessed in terms of his maleness; if everything he wore, said, or did had to be justified by reference to female approval; if he were compelled to regard himself, day in and day out, not as a member of society, but merely (salva reverential) as a virile member of society.  If from school and lectureroom, Press and pulpit, he heard the persistent outpouring of a shrill and scolding voice, bidding him remember his biological function.  If he were vexed by continual advice how to add a rough male touch to his typing, how to be learned without losing his masculine appeal, how to combine chemical research with seduction, how to play bridge without incurring the suspicion of impotence.  If, instead of allowing with a smile that “women prefer cavemen,” he felt the unrelenting pressure of a whole social structure forcing him to order all his goings inconformity with that pronouncement.”[1]

In ‘The Human-Not-Quite-Human’ (an address given in 1938 to an unidentified women’s society), she writes that much of the confusion that has lately arisen regarding the role of women in society would be easily dispelled if people would simply refrain from determining the spectrum of women’s interests by their sex.  Just because a woman is a woman, it doesn’t follow that she may not wear pants, study Aristotle, or become a mechanic – her essential femaleness is not, in itself, an inhibitor for her doing any of these things.  Much had been said about the psychology behind the recent phenomenon of women’s participation in activities that have commonly fallen within the province of men, and Sayers writes that the most popular explanation for their interest is that ‘women are just copying men’.

Her first response is to deny this – certainly, women may be ‘copying’ men in the sense that the men wore pants and went to university first, but (if they are reasonable women) their reason for doing so is that (like men) they find pants more comfortable than skirts, and their particular intellectual interests have compelled them to further study that can only be had in a university.  The fact that they’re pursuing a path generally trod by their brothers hasn’t factored into their decision.  But even supposing that assertion to be true, what else would you have women do?  Sayers asks.  The domestic vocations that have traditionally occupied them (i.e., growing and preparing food, managing their estates, designing and manufacturing clothing) have all been appropriated and industrialized by men.  Their ‘estates’ have gone from self-sufficient farms to two-bedroom flats.  Even if all of them wanted to remain at home and raise their families, the lack of necessity for constant attention to home-maintenance and the inability to comfortably house a large family makes their exclusive confinement to the hearth unreasonable.

Moreover, Sayers writes, there’s nothing very extraordinary about a woman’s wishing to pursue a professional (as opposed to a domestic) vocation.  While it’s true that many of them choose not to study biomedical engineering or a career in the money market, (and indeed, are not suited to doing so) the appearance of a woman in these fields shouldn’t generate controversy.  A common trait is just that – a common trait, not a universal constant.  True, most women prefer to marry and raise children – but it doesn’t follow that a woman can or ought not, by virtue of her femininity, to enter academia and business.  Women are human beings, like men, and have the same needs and desires that expect fulfillment.

It’s this last point that Sayers belabors to an almost fatiguing degree – ‘women are human beings’.  This staggering revelation forms the bedrock principle behind her entire argument and (from the fact that she brings it up every two paragraphs) is the material point that she believes deserves the greatest consideration – the fact that women are human beings.  Since women share common physical, intellectual and emotional needs with men, it shouldn’t surprise them (men) that they want to do the same things that men do. 

This is all very well, and I agree with her – men and woman are both human beings, and certainly share similar desires and interests.  My objections are not with her argument per se, but with the suppositions upon which she builds it – first, that there is such a thing as a non-sexual human being (as though one could contemplate a human that was both not-man and not-woman), and second, that it’s by virtue of the similarity of female humanity to male humanity that women ought to be accorded the same respect and opportunities as men.

While both sexes are human, I think it particularly important to the dignity of both to remember that there are male humans and female humans, and that while there’s much we share, there’s much we don’t.  Sociologists, feminists, and citizens of the Ivory Tower are very fond of harping on the ‘socialization of the sexes’, and how our differences are greatly exaggerated by the ideals propagated therefrom.  This is very true, and has certainly caused trouble in ages past.  However, I don’t think it in our best interest, having hit one end of the spectrum, to spin about and go sprinting down to the other end.  While society does tend to exaggerate our differences, it didn’t create them.  The answer is not to boil each other down to our lowest common denominator and relate from there – it’s to learn how to appreciate one another’s differences and be willing to work within the parameters that they create.  To do otherwise degrades the unique qualities of both and fosters the false belief that if we could just rid ourselves of our disparities, there’d be a significant decrease in the amount of friction in many male-female relationships.  Our problem is not our differences, but rather the sinfulness that insists upon their mortification for the sake of the individual.

Sayers’ exhaustive illustrations of the many ways in which women are similar to men almost led me to believe that her argument was founded not upon her firm belief that women are human beings, but upon her demonstration that women are human beings in the same way that men are.  That is to say, women exemplify their humanity in the same way that men do, therefore, they ought to be afforded the same opportunities and considerations.  This is true, certainly – Sayers demonstrates that effectively – but it’s a poor argument, since it unconsciously affirms the very thing that Sayers would like to deny; namely, the superiority of the humanity of men above the humanity of women.  If I understood her correctly, she appears to hold male humanity as the standard against which the dignity of female humanity is judged.  It would better serve her purpose to argue that the dignity of women does not lie in the fact that they are human in the same way that men are human, but in the fact that like men, they too bear the image of the living, triune God.  While female humanity shares much with her male counterpart, that oughtn’t to be the reason for which she’s granted the right to pursue whatever life she will.  To do so is to impose an essential hierarchy (where we are told that, in Christ, none exists) and to hold women to a standard they can’t attain to.

Sayers’ presence was welcomed in the Inklings’ discussions because she showed herself to be Lewis’ and Tolkien’s intellectual companion, but part of what distinguished it was the fact that hers was a female presence.  Her sex set her apart, not because she was a sensitive woman and Lancelyn Green, Barfield, et. al. were a lot of quasi-anencephalic brutes, but because her person, intellect, and conversation all testified to the glory of her Creator and the equanimity with which he dispenses his gifts.  While her femininity certainly didn’t determine her opinions on Dante or the method with which she analyzed Malory and Beowulf, its influence leant a perspective and nuance to her interactions with texts and authors, which (judging from the fact that they welcomed her repeatedly over the course of several years) they probably appreciated.  She, in turn, likely reaped treasures untold from her fellowship with men who were celebrated for their wisdom and piety as much as their literary accomplishments.  These are the sorts of rich rewards that are to be had when men and women take care to respect and appreciate one another’s humanity, not because our similarities make it reasonable, but because we see Christ in our differences.

 


[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2005), 56-57

The God-Centered Gospel

Dr. Horton has a very helpful and important article in next month’s Tabletalk magazine on the importance of remembering that all three persons of the Trinity are involved in our salvation. Ligonier has posted this article on their website and here is a little teaser:

It’s terrific to see so many younger Christians excited about being “God-centered.” However, Islam and Orthodox Judaism claim to be “Godcentered,” too. The Christian faith is distinguished by its claim that God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and we know this from Scripture, preeminently in the Son’s entrance into a fallen world in our own flesh. We dare not approach “God” in His blinding majesty apart from Christ our Mediator. Apart from Christ, the Father is our Judge, and His glory is the worst thing we could ever encounter. That’s not because the Father is less loving than the Son, but because we are sinners. And we can say our “amen” to the Son only because of the Spirit who indwells us.

Read the entire article – The God-Centered Gospel

Work Out Your Salvation

“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” It’s often used either as a whip or explained away (“Now, what Paul isn’t saying is…”). As usual, it’s crucial to examine the statement in the flow of Paul’s letter.

Context, Context…

First, the whole statement reads, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his own good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13).

Second, “Therefore,…” already clues us to what has gone before. Paul has described Christ’s humility and exaltation for our salvation, which he commended as an example for believers. Jesus Christ is Lord, having been exalted to the Father’s right hand as our Redeemer (Phil 2:1-10).

Third, in chapter 3 Paul will draw a line between his assets and liabilities, and move his assets (“righteousness under the law”) into the liabilities column, counting his good works apart from Christ as “dung, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…” (Phil 3:8-9).

You Are Light, So Shine!

With these pieces of the puzzle in place, we can focus on the pericope in question, 2:12-18, which summons the Philippian church to live as lights in the world. Christ, the Light of the World, is their example. Of course, Jesus Christ is in a sense inimitable, utterly unique. He alone descended from heaven in the incarnation, laying aside his sovereign privileges. And he alone endured humiliation, even to the point of death on a cross, for our shame; he alone was raised to the position of all authority and power above every name in heaven and on earth. His work alone saved, and not by offering an example, but by doing what only he could do. Nevertheless, it is also presented as an example for us to follow—not so that we will be like Christ, but because we are in fact in Christ, united to him in his death and resurrection.

It’s important to begin with the obvious: Paul says “work out your salvation…,” not “work for” it. It is something that we have already been given. Not only justified, we are regenerated and are being conformed progressively to the image of Christ. Even this sanctification is God’s work: “…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Divine and human action do not constitute a zero-sum game. Hyper-Calvinism confuses works-righteousness with good works, human activity with an attempt to attain justification. Of course, if one is seeking a meritorious reward, then works are condemned. Not only our sins, but our righteousness, falls short of God’s glory. To offer up our own pretended righteousness to God actually arouses his anger (see chapter 3). In regeneration, we are passive: acted upon and within by the Spirit through the gospel. In justification, we receive Christ’s imputed righteousness (again, chapter 3). In sanctification, we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” knowing that God is completing in us that renewing work that he began. It is done with seriousness, but also in the freedom of children rather than the anxious fear of servants who wonder if they will be condemned.

A Real Imperative

The indicative announcement of Christ’s achievement for us in verses 1-11 grounds his imperative. Nevertheless, it is a real imperative. And it’s an imperative not only to rest in Christ, but to work. Because we rest in Christ alone for our justification, we can finally perform good works without wondering anxiously if they are good enough. Of course, they are not good enough to pass God’s righteous verdict as our Judge, but their deficiencies are pardoned for the sake of Christ. It is a great comfort to know that our perfect justification and sanctification in Christ already brings forgiveness of the sins clinging even to our best works! So now there is work to be done, from our salvation, not for it. Work it out. Flesh out its implications. On the basis of the gospel’s indicatives, take seriously the imperatives to love and serve your neighbor. Let’s not collapse justification into sanctification or sanctification into justification. They are distinct yet inseparably related aspects of that salvation that Christ has won for us.

So Paul is not simply telling us to look to our justification. That’s not working out our salvation. He’s very specific in the details: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ, I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (vv 14-18). Timothy and Epaphroditus are being sent to minister to them and they will undoubtedly be examples of such service (vv 19-30).

We miss Paul’s point if we think that he is talking about justification here. If that were the case, then the imperative would be the condition of justification. However, the call to be “blameless and innocent” is to live uprightly before other sinners, not to offer one’s “righteousness” as a guilt-offering to God. Paul alludes here to the wilderness generation, that was “crooked and twisted” (Deut 32:5). They “grumbled” and “complained” against God and his servant Moses (see also 1 Cor 10:1-12). As Numbers 20:10-14 indicates, this grumbling was actually a formal and legal charge that the people brought against Yahweh. (Amazingly, God allowed himself to be put on trial and even struck for his people as he was the water-gushing Rock that Moses was commanded to strike.)

So the Philippian church needed encouragement to flesh out, live out, and work out that salvation that Christ had won for them. Humility, patience, and sacrificial love should characterize their lives. They are “lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life“—that is, the gospel. They never look away from the gospel, but rest in Christ in relation to God even as they are active in good works toward their neighbor.

Bottom line: The gospel is not the enemy of good works, unless one is seeking justification by obedience, as Paul makes clear in chapter 3. In fact, the gospel is the ground of good works. The goal is both to be clothed with Christ’s alien, perfect, and complete righteousness and to be more and more “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (1:11). So not only when we are resting in Christ for justification, but when we are going out of ourselves to love our neighbors in sanctification, the Triune God has it all under control. We’re only working out that which he has worked for and within us according to his gospel. Holding fast to the word of life, we work out our salvation in the knowledge that “he who began a good work in you will bring it completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).

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