How many blogs must comment on something before the blogosphere can be abuzz? We’ve seen eight or nine posts over the last several days commenting on John Frame’s recent “book review” of Mike Horton’s Christless Christianity. So, we’re not quite convinced that this is a dispute of blogospheric proportions, but we also thought in the interests of fairly characterizing Frame’s review for what it is, we should provide some kind of response.
First, it is stunning that Professor Frame should so totally disagree with Horton’s basic premise: that evangelicalism is in sad shape and getting worse. Literally hundreds of books, articles, and conferences have taken up that issue over the last two decades and arrived at the same conclusion: it is! Frame complains that Horton only quotes “unbelievers” who apparently wield facts as weapons in a deliberate swipe against the church. Briefly, we would point out that a Methodist bishop, Will Willimon, wrote the forward to the book, agreeing with its premise and emphasizing the need for evangelicals to pay close attention to the errors of their mainline cousins. We have also spent significant airtime on White Horse Inn with Christian Smith, a committed Christian and a noted sociologist, who painstakingly documented his conclusion about the reign of “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” Most recently, Mark Galli in a Christianity Today cover story (“In the Beginning, Grace”) makes many of the same analyses as Horton does in Christless Christianity. Galli even names more specific names and movements than Horton does (including names and movements that Frame evidently thinks are doing just fine). So much for Horton being an axe-grinding, dogmatic observer of the Christian scene! [For readers who are interested in seeing more of the evidence first hand, visit our website and listen to all of the free programs that showcase the problem within both evangelical and Reformational churches.] That Frame cannot or is not willing to see this problem is troubling and calls into question the integrity of this review. It also does a disservice not only to his own readers but to the many, many evangelicals in exile who have seen in the book the sad tale of their own experience.
Second, the strength of a review comes not in what it says, but in what it implies and by this measurement, Frame’s insinuations undercut his own standing to review this book (or nearly any other if this is characteristic of his style). About two-thirds of the way through [rather than read it all, you can just search on the word “disqualifies” to find this quote], Frame writes,
So the qualifications of church officers in 1 Tim. 3:1-13 and Tit. 1:5-9 are primarily qualities of character, so that these officers can be examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). When Horton confesses on 117, “…I am not an exemplary creature,” he perhaps unintentionally disqualifies himself for church office.
Of course, context is key and Horton’s remarks were not meant to be read as a sort of pulpit confessional, but as an example of preaching Christ not ourselves. Does Frame think that being “above reproach” means a preacher should lead his congregation to his own character? Sadly, examples like these are to be found in nearly every section of Frame’s review. Thankfully, most people will not take the time to discover for themselves the personal, accusatory nature of Frame’s critique.
Third, Frame’s ten-point summary does deserve some rebuttal because Frame says that these ten points are at the heart of Horton’s work and “are not warranted by the Reformed Confessions and … in my mind are not even Scriptural.” We respond that Fame’s ten points bear no resemblance to the book he is reviewing or the body of work that Horton has delivered via his academic work, popular level books, conference papers, sermons, etc. Here are the ten points that Frame claims summarize Horton’s theology (in italics), with a brief response to each point.
1. Attention to ourselves necessarily detracts from attention to Christ.
No, it can detract from Christ. But it does not necessarily detract from Christ. When it comes to the gospel, “we preach not ourselves, but Christ,” because the gospel is not about us at all. Confusion over this matter does detract from Christ. However, the good news about Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection has implications on the way we live, and so we must give some attention to ourselves as we let the light of the gospel shine in every dark corner, which challenges us to rethink our actions, self-centeredness, etc.
2. We should not give attention to the way we communicate the gospel, or to making it relevant to its hearers.
Relevance and context are clearly different than pragmatism. To which has the evangelical church at large given itself?
3. God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are a zero-sum game. The idea that man must do something compromises the absolute sovereignty of God.
This is an outright misrepresentation and we’re disappointed that Professor Frame should characterize Horton’s theology in this way. He is not a hyper-Calvinist and nothing in Christless Christianity or anything else that he has written bears this out.
4. God’s work of salvation is completely objective, external to us, and not at all subjective, internal to us. (Here he backtracks some.)
This is another caricature. Horton’s argument is that the gospel is completely objective and external to us: it’s the Good News about Christ’s person and work. However, Horton clearly says that God’s work of salvation includes regeneration and sanctification. The Spirit applies the redemption that the gospel announces.
5. God promises us no earthly blessings, only heavenly ones, and to desire earthly blessings is a “theology of glory,” deserving condemnation.
Horton’s critique is that we are trying to use God to attain our best life now, rather than to see God as the object of our faith and worship, for “every blessing in heavenly realms in Christ” (Eph 1:3-4). Lost in exaggeration, Frame’s caricature of this argument misses the point.
6. Law and gospel should be utterly separate. There should be no good news in the bad news and no bad news in the good news.
This is a longstanding complaint by Frame. Not only does he consistently misrepresent the Lutheran view on this point; he seems to be unaware of the consensus of Reformed theologians that the confusion of law and gospel is the heart of theological errors. This point has been made not only by Calvin, but by Beza, Ursinus, Perkins, Owen, and Spurgeon all the way to Louis Berkhof and John Murray. In Christless Christianity (and elsewhere), Horton very clearly affirms that law and gospel are to be distinguished but never separated. The one thing that Professor Frame accurately says about the book on this point is that “There should be no good news in the bad news and no bad news in the good news.” That’s why the law reveals our sin and misery (as the Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Shorter Catechism confess), and the gospel reveals God’s saving grace toward us in Jesus Christ. One should be far less bothered that Professor Frame is confused about Christless Christianity than that he seems confused about the difference between commands (imperatives) and declarations of God’s promises (indicatives).
7. Preaching of the gospel must never use biblical characters as moral or spiritual examples. Nor must it address practical ethical issues in the Christian life.
Of course there are moral examples in Scripture, and Horton affirms this in his book; the point is that the Bible is to be read as an unfolding story of redemption, with Christ as the hero. All we ask is that if you use a character as a moral or spiritual example, be sure to include not just the exemplary things that he or she did but also the tragic sins that made it necessary for even a “friend of God” or a “man after God’s own heart” to look forward to a Redeemer. Don’t stop with the example, look to where the example actually points: to Jesus Christ. And ground your practical ethical issues in the new creation, just as the New Testament writers do. For more on the relationship between doctrine and ethics, see Horton’s People and Place.
8. A focus on redemption excludes a focus on anything else.
This is baffling. Is Frame intentionally misrepresenting the book or is he unable to read the book without even a modicum of Christian charity? Stunning.
9. In worship and in the general ministry of the church, God gives and does not receive; the congregation receives and does not give.
Read Horton’s A Better Way for a substative rebuttal. That Frame and Horton have differences of opinion on what happens or should happen in a worship service is an understatement, but point 9 does not reflect either the points made in Christless Christianity or A Better Way. Horton has consistently argued that worship is dialogical; the congregation is a participant with God in the worship service. God serves us in Word and Sacrament, and we respond in songs of praise, prayer, confession, and attention.
10. Analysts of the church must compare the Church’s focus on Christ with its focus on other things, rather than considering that many of these other things are in fact applications of Christ’s own person and work.
If churches actually saw their focus on other things as extensions and applications of Christ’s ministry, we wouldn’t have an issue. But the facts (as cited in the works of both unbelievers and believers in many different traditions) just don’t bear out Frame’s optimism about mainstream evangelicalism here.
Much more, of course, could be said about Frame’s review. But we hope that those who only read blog recaps of books and reviews of books will at least be informed now as to the significant weaknesses of his review. It should not be taken seriously and will not be taken seriously by those who are closer to the problems of evangelicalism than Frame appears to be.
[We're continuing with Mike Horton's review of N.T. Wright's new book, Justification, a response to the criticisms of John Piper and others to his reconsideration of the Reformation's understanding of Paul and the universal problem of guilt and righteousness. Want to catch up or refresh your memory? Here are the previous installments.]
“Works of the Law”: Soteriology and Ecclesiology
Following D. G. Dunn, Wright insists that the “works of the law” are not “the moral ‘good works’ which the Reformation tradition loves to hate. They are the things that divide Jew from Gentile…” (117; cf. 172). Aside from the fact that the Reformation tradition—Lutheran as well as Reformed—has always affirmed the abiding role of the moral law for the Christian life, the deeper problem with this view is what it excludes. Of course, the Torah included the ceremonial and civil commands that governed the theocracy and marked Israel off from the nations. To be sure, these Israel-specific laws functioned as boundary markers. And surely their obsolescence (or rather, fulfillment) in the new covenant opens the door to the realization of the Abrahamic promise of the gospel to all peoples. However, is that it? Is there nothing more to the Good News than, “Jesus is Lord, so you don’t have to be circumcised and keep the dietary laws?” The new perspective misses the deeper problem of the “works of the law” as a means of justification in Paul. Paul’s teaching on justification surely involves an ecclesiological component (uniting two peoples into one in Christ), but only because it is the soteriological answer to a universal human problem: guilt before a holy God (Rom 3).
Wright insists that “justification is God’s declaration that someone is in the right, is a member of the sin-forgiven covenant family, while salvation is the actual rescue from death and sin” (170). “The Reformation legacy, eager to deny that ‘good works’ in the sense of morally virtuous deeds can play any part in commending us to God, was happy to cite this passage [Eph 2:10] by way of answer to the normal charge that ‘justification by faith alone’ would cut the nerve of all Christian morality.” We’re not saved by good works, but unto good works. “Well and good. This is not far, of course, from what the new perspective would say about Judaism: rescued by grace then given Torah as the way of life. But I do not actually think that that is what Paul is talking about here…[T]he point of this is not simply ‘because you now need to be virtuous’ but ‘because the church is the body of Christ in and for the world’” (171).
Wright wonders, “Is resistance to ecclesiology in Paul bound up with resistance to finding too much for the Spirit to do as well?” The coming together of Jews and Gentiles into one body is integral to the mystery in Ephesians (173). “If initial membership is by grace, but final judgment is according to works—and the New Testament, at first glance, including the Pauline corpus, does seem quite clear at this point—then what account of those ‘works’ can we give? Is this not, at last, the moment when Jewish ‘legalism’ is exposed?” Wright doesn’t deny that there are Second Temple texts that highlight the importance of works at the judgment (75). “First, the key question facing Judaism as a whole was not about individual salvation, but about God’s purposes for Israel and the world…The ‘present age’ would give way to the ‘age to come,’ but who would inherit that ‘age to come’?” (76). This seems right, in light of some of the questions that Jesus’ hearers ask. However, don’t these questions inescapably involve the personal question, “How can I be saved?” “What right do you Pharisees think you have to escape the wrath to come?”, Jesus demands of the religious leaders. “You assume that you are among the righteous to be raised on the last day, but are you really?” And his clear answer, especially during Holy Week on the Temple Mount is “No!”
So again Wright and the new perspective help us to embrace a wider context—and we are foolish if we ignore their seminal insights on these points, but they apparently fail to understand how the cosmic-eschatological concerns and the personal anxiety over salvation from sin’s guilt and power are interdependent. Again he assumes he’s the only one who has ever tied justification to the covenant in Gen 15 (82-3). What was Israel’s expectation during Jesus’ ministry?
The answer, from source after source in the second-temple period, confirming what we might have guessed from Scripture itself, was this: Israel will be vindicated, will inherit the age to come—but it will be the Israel that has kept Torah, or that, through penitence and amendment of life (as in Daniel 9, looking back to Deuteronomy 30), has shown the heartfelt desire to follow God’s ways and be loyal to his covenant…’All Israel will inherit the age to come,’ said the Rabbis, with the following clauses indicating that some would not, opting out by their own rank refusal to follow Torah. Torah thus functioned, implicitly at least, within not only a covenantal framework but also a broadly eschatological one. The ‘age to come’ would see Israel vindicated at least. But the way to tell, in the present, who would thus be vindicated in the future was to see who was keeping Torah (in some sense at least) in the present…These questions could be addressed in terms of a theological account of how much of this law-keeping was up to one’s own initiative, and how much would be owed to God’s grace and help (76).
So much for their not being interested in questions of personal salvation, grace, and the extent to which one had to cooperate with God in justification! In fact, Wright refers to examples from early Jewish literature suggesting the importance of weighing works as the basis for final judgment and vindication. In fact, the Qumran community agreed with Paul in their expectation of the fulfillment of Deut 30. “Where they diverged was on the questions (a) What events have precipitated the advance covenant renewal with us in the present? (b) Who will be vindicated when God finally completes what he has thereby begun? (c) What are the signs in the present which mark out those who will be vindicated in the future? And perhaps also, as we shall see, (d) What theological account of how one passes from present grace-given membership to future salvation?” (77). From his own summary, it would seem that these questions are more integrally involved with the concern for personal salvation than Wright allows.
So again, the problem is not so much what is affirmed as what is denied. Wright is on target when he criticizes evangelicals for separating salvation (soteriology) from the church (ecclesiology) (132). He is also correct in seeing in Paul a thorough integration of those issues. The problem is that while the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile (and male and female and free and slave) is for Paul a critical implication and consequence of the gospel, for Wright it is exactly reverse. For him, the message of sin, forgiveness, and salvation is an “of course” (131). “The problem of human sin, and the divine answer in terms of the rescue provided by the Messiah, is the presupposition. It emerges gloriously at several points, notably Galatians 2:19-20 and Galatians 3:22. But it is not the main argument” (133). It’s not just “at several points,” however, but throughout his epistles that Paul makes central the themes of personal salvation in union with Christ. Because neither Jews nor Gentiles keep the law, they are all lumped together under a common curse, but because Jesus Christ has taken our place, Jews and Gentiles together can be children of Abraham—part of God’s single, worldwide family. That is Romans 1-4 in nuce.
“How can ‘ecclesiology’ be a secondary topic, unworthy to be associated with the great doctrine of justification,” Wright asks, “when Scripture itself gives it this high a place?”
Why should not the point of justification itself be precisely this, that, in constituting the church as the single family who are a sign to the powers that Jesus is Lord and that they are not, it serves directly the mission of the kingdom of God in the world? It cannot be, can it, that part of the old perspective’s reaction to the new is the tacit sense that once we associate ecclesiology with the very center of the gospel we will have to go all the way and rethink the political role and task of the church? (174).
Before we criticize too quickly, it is important to allow Wright’s concerns to sink in. Justification is not treated in the scriptures simply as an individual affair, but as a cosmic renewal, a divine re-writing of the tragic script that we have written for ourselves and the rest of creation. The church is integral to God’s saving plan—not as the source of redemption, but as the minister of reconciliation. Further, this ministry leads simultaneously to a justified and renewed people who fulfill their callings in the world with an eschatological anticipation of Christ’s fully-realized reign in a renewed creation.
However, this plan would be pie-in-the-sky if it were in our hands to accomplish or to complete—or if the justification of the ungodly were merely an “of course” rather than the reason why a united family of God is emerging in this passing age. Wright’s real target seems to be not so much the Reformation tradition as pietism. As on other points, his solution is just as one-sided, however. He worries that the “old perspective” on justification will revive “Luther’s ‘two kingdoms’ theology…” (174), although it is not clear exactly what ostenstibly dangerous view he has in mind. Although he is anxious about an over-realized theology with respect to justification, he seems to advocate just such an eschatology with respect to the kingdom of God. In recent years, Wright has emphasized the political context of Jesus’ ministry and apostolic preaching, over against the claims of Caesar, particularly in an effort to challenge U.S. militarism. Even here, there are important insights. However, is Romans really a political manifesto against Caesar, especially when Paul’s call to obey emperors appears in chapter 13? The “two kingdoms” doctrine, which Calvin held as well, does not separate Christ’s reign from the world’s powers, but it also does not confuse them. In this time between Christ’s two advents, the Spirit is at work uniting sinners to Christ and creating an end-time harvest of Israel and the nations. For now, the kingdoms of this world have not yet been made the kingdom of Christ in geo-political terms. Nevertheless, the church announces that imminent hope and lives in the present with patience, suffering for the sake of the gospel, until Christ returns in glory.
Next week, we’ll conclude this series with some final thoughts on the book as a whole.
After a week away from the blog, it’s gratifying to come back to it with some much to write about! Later today we’ll take up the next installment of Wright Wednesdays and there’s another “issue” we’re contemplating, too!
But first, let’s go to Bishop Martyn Minns of the newly formed Anglican Church in North America, who is reacting to the announcement yesterday that the Roman Catholic Church is making it easier for traditionalist Anglicans to convert to Catholicism: “I don’t want to be a Roman Catholic,” said Bishop Minns. “There was a Reformation, you remember.”
This is just a great quote and it highlights the real issue at hand. Apparently the doctrinal issues separating Rome and Canterbury aren’t the issue, it’s gay ordination and Rome comes down on the right side of that issue.
Some internet commentators have said that this shows Benedict’s concern for Christian unity and ecumenicity. Um, not really. He says the Anglicans can keep their hymns and work with people who understand them as they go through the process of converting to Roman Catholicism. One doesn’t bargain with the RCC, it’s her terms or no terms. Certainly the worldwide Catholic Church is large enough and diverse enough to appeal to a number of people with differing beliefs and emphases, but the clincher is that one must always accept pontifical authority.
Maybe that’s enough for a few Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians out there, but it shouldn’t be enough for those who think that the Reformation was an important event with modern day implications. Thanks, Bishop Minns and the New York Times for reminding us.
On this edition of the program, the hosts talk with international columnist Uwe Siemon-Netto about his career in journalism, as well as his conversion back to the faith of his childhood. The conversation also centers on the doctrine of vocation, two kingdom theory, and the radical theology behind various secular political movements.
A friend tells you, “The Bible has a lot of nice stories but people take it too seriously because its really just a book written by men.” How do you respond? On this edition of the White Horse Inn, the hosts continue their conversation with Greg Koukl, president of Stand to Reason and author of, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions.
Artist: Soular; Song: “You Taste, You Feel”
Album: Love Crash Heal
Our hosts are getting ready to do a lot of travel in the next few weeks. They might be coming to an event near you!
- Mike Horton will be speaking at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA, for Renewing the Evangelical Mission, a conference honoring the legacy of David F. Wells. His topic is “Rediscovering the Church After Evangelicalism.”
- Ken Jones will be Christ Reformed Church in Washington, DC for the lecture series, Calvin in the Capital. His topic is “Calvin on Human Nature.”
- Kim Riddlebarger will be at Estacada Christian Church in the Portland, OR area for the Fall Theology Conference of The Reformation Society of Oregon. He’ll spend four sessions answering common questions about the end times.
- Ken Jones will be at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Glendale, CA for their Reformation Weekend Conference. He will be speaking on Calvin’s doctrine of humanity and spirituality at 10:00 a.m.
- Rod Rosenbladt will be in the Houston, TX area at Zion Lutheran Church for the “Defending the Faith Apologetics Symposium.”
October 30-November 1:
- Mike Horton will be at New Life Presbyterian Church in La Mesa, CA, for the San Diego Reformation Conference.
Reformation and Revitalization
In this week’s edition of Five for Friday, our blog interview feature, we welcome the Rev. Harry Reeder, a PCA pastor in Birmingham, Alabama, and the founder of “Embers to a Flame”: a ministry of church revitalization.
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.
Give us a brief summary of the work that Embers to a Flame does.
Embers to a Flame is a focused ministry to address the issue of leading a church that has plateaued of declined or lost effectiveness for the work of the kingdom back to vitality and effectiveness in serving Christ. While Embers To a Flame certainly encourages preaching and praying for revival, the focus is upon leading a church to spiritual health and vitality, thus the term RE – vitalization. Just as a parent is dependent upon the Lord for the health of one’s child they also realize that they have been given the wisdom to encourage and nurture health and vitality in their child. Leaders of the church are dependent upon the Lord to give life to the church but have been called of the Lord and given direction as to how to nurture health and vitality in the body of Christ. It is important to understand that the objective is NOT church growth but church health. We do not TELL our children how many inches to grow. We feed them, rest and exercise them trusting the Lord in fulfilling what he has purposed through the DNA of their body. Likewise church leaders nurture the body of Christ trusting the Lord in the DNA of the work of the Holy Spirit in that church’s testimony as a manifestation of the Body of Christ. Certainly statistical growth in conversions, members, giving and missionaries, would be an expected consequence of health and vitality BUT it is not the objective. When growth becomes the objective it is only a matter of time until pragmatism guides the decision making process of the leadership. Just as athletes who value size put steroids into their body many churches, for the sake of size, will introduce “cultural steroids” into the body not realizing that like the athlete there may be immediate expansion of size but actually you have introduced an inevitable death through this process. Embers to a Flame rejects the notion that big is good and small is bad and equally rejects the notion that small is good and big is bad. If “small” becomes the objective to the church’s attempt to purity then the church again introduces death the way individuals who become obsessed with smallness develop eating disorders which causes the body to turn upon itself and destroy itself…so those churches eventually become ingrown and eventually self destruct.
Embers to a Flame is a distillation of biblical principles to help lead a church to health and vitality through spiritually healthy leaders and leadership. The focus is upon the documented revitalization process in Scripture of the Church of Ephesus, first through Timothy and then specifically, following the prescription of Christ in Rev. 2:4-5 ~ Remember – Repent – Recover the First Things is the Lord’s roadmap back to a church’s “first love” and its vitality. Furthermore, this three-fold paradigm is implemented through 10 strategies drawn from the Scriptures.
When most people think of Reformation today, they think of starting new churches much like the leaders of the Protestant Reformation did in the sixteenth century. What is the relationship between the reformation of the church and the revitalization of the church?
The 10 strategies of Revitalization of necessity called for Reformation. The premise is from Scripture and history that “Great Awakenings” come from revitalized churches and therefore believers through the process of reformation which is encompassed in the paradigm Remember – Repent – Recover the first things.
Why is revitalization a necessary work?
In today’s ecclesiastical fascinations, Church Planting has center stage and for many reasons that are appropriate. But, when the Apostle Paul went back for the second and third missionary journeys he specifically added revitalization of the churches that had been planted as an objective to be achieved. It is interesting that Acts 17:6 records the word of a frustrated pagan all the way from Europe declaring “these people who have turned the world upside down have come here also.”
We know Who turned the world upside down – the Holy Spirit through his church (acts 1:8).
We know What turned the world upside down – the Power of the Gospel (Rom 1:16).
What is interesting is How they turned the world upside down in less than 25 years after the Ascension of Jesus. The strategy was four- fold:
- Gospel evangelism and discipleship
- Gospel church planting
- Gospel leaders developed and deployed
- Gospel deeds of love, mercy and justice
This four-fold initiative was enhanced in the second and third missionary journeys of Gospel Church Revitalization (Acts 15-16 – “strengthening the church”)
Therefore, if we are to be Biblical in our strategy and not driven by sociology and psychology but by Biblical precept, it is our conviction that every church and denomination must be focused upon Christ- centered and Gospel-driven Church Planting AND Church Revitalization. When one sheep wonders Christ pursues it and when a flock wonders Christ pursues them. That is why Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus and gave him a handbook on revitalization – I Timothy – And Titus was sent to Crete to “set in order what remains” with a similar handbook on revitalization. Then 55 years later John is given a message of revitalization not only for Ephesus but for four other churches from Christ himself – Revelation 2 and 3.
What kinds of churches need to be revitalized? That is, what are the signs that a local church might take note of?
Churches that are candidates for revitalization are those who have become spiritually and numerically stagnate, plateaued or declining. The symptoms that reveal the need for revitalization are many and varied. Here are a few:
- Program dependent
- Fascinated by personality leadership
- Financial decline
- Loss of impact, usually in the younger generation
- Numerical decline – decline of members
- Loss of hope
- Nostalgia dominated
- Survival mentality and multiple excuses catalogued to rationalize ineffectiveness
- More of a museum than a movement
How do you define a healthy church?
First of all, we must be committed to the Biblical definition of the church as the core of the Kingdom of God, the equipping center for the Kingdom of God and a manifestation of the Kingdom of God. The church is NOT the Kingdom but at the core of the Kingdome of God. Secondly, the church must lose their fascination with hyphenated churches that are driven by highly contextualized models i.e. Emergent churches, Sonship churches, Seeker-centered and Traditional churches. We must return to our confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture to define for us what the church is. And furthermore it doesn’t matter if it is 800 AD or 2800 AD and it doesn’t matter if its Kansas or Kenya, this is what the church is and does. Once that is established then the Biblical model must be effectively contextualized in the location where the church is being planted or revitalized. The symptoms of a healthy church are described in Acts 2:
- Participatory God-centered worship
- Daily evangelism
- Sacrificial giving
- Observable sacrificial love of the brethren
- Primacy of the ministry of prayer and the Word
- Intentional disciple making through small groups
- Proper observation and implementation of the sacraments i.e. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
- Intimate fellowship and the use of spiritual gifts by the members of the church in ministry
- A sense of the presence of God
- Transformed lives through the Gospel of Grace resulting in a testimony of the preeminence of Christ. The Holy Spirit will be at work and no one will be speaking about Him because His work is that everyone will be speaking of and proclaiming Christ.
For more information on Embers to a Flame, visit their website or purchase Dr. Reeder’s book, From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church 2nd ed. (P&R, 2004).
Justification and Romans
Wright’s seventh chapter focuses on justification in Romans. Among other things, “part of its aim is to challenge, at several levels, the ideological foundations of Caesar’s empire” (177). If we had not made “‘justification’ cover the entire sweep of soteriology from grace to glory…,” we would have recognized Paul’s central point: “God’s own ‘righteousness,’ unveiled, as in a great apocalypse, before the watching world” (178).
According to the author, the old perspective misreads Romans in several ways:
1. 3:27-31 “comes unglued at its crucial joint, the ē at the start of Romans 3:29.”
2. Abraham in chapter 4 is treated as an ‘example’ or ‘illustration,’ and the point of the chapter is thereby completely missed, resulting in the oddity of placing within parentheses phrases in Romans 4:16-17, which are actually the main point of the whole discussion.
3. With Romans 9-11 itself, even when Paul structures his argument by questions about the word of God having failed, about God being unjust, about God’s rights as judge, about his revelation of wrath and power, and then about his mercy (Romans 9:6, 14, 19, 22, 23)—all of which, to the eye trained in Scripture and Jewish tradition, should say, ‘This is all about God’s own righteousness’—the point is simply not seen, let alone grasped. Such is the effect of the late-medieval blinkers still worn within the post-Reformation traditions.
4. Then, of course, Romans 10:6-13 falls as well. If one is not thinking about God’s faithfulness to the covenant, one might well miss—and the vast majority of exegetes have missed!—the central significance of Deuteronomy 30 within its own biblical context and within the re-readings of Scripture in Paul’s day, and the way in which that passage, and the various second-temple re-readings of it, including Paul’s, all point to the foundational belief that God is faithful to the covenant and will therefore bring about its renewal at last.
5. Finally, the climactic statements about God in Romans 11 (see Romans 11:22, 32, and of course 33-36) still fail to alert those whose minds are steeped in the theology of a different age to the fact, which even the verbal statistics will tell you, that the primary thing it is saying about God is that he is the God of faithful, just, covenantal love, that this has been unveiled in the gospel message about Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen Messiah, and that through this gospel message, and the radical unveiling of God’s covenant justice and faithfulness, God’s saving power is going out into the world, and will not rest until creation itself is set free from its slavery to corruption and decay and shares in the liberty of the glory of God’s children” (179-180).
The link between Romans 2:27 and chapter 9-11 is key for Wright. All roads lead back to Romans 2: “The journey from Romans 5:1-5 to Romans 8:31-39 is also the journey from Romans 3:21-31 back to Romans 2:1-16” (225). He does not think that Paul is talking about noble pagans when he speaks of Gentiles “without the law” nevertheless following its precepts written on the conscience. Rather, Wright believes that Gentile Christians are intended. Those who actually fulfill the law will be justified. The future judgment according to works (182-193). “Possession of Torah…will not be enough; it will be doing it that counts (whatever ‘doing it’ is going to mean)” (184).
This “doing” is to be taken seriously, and at this point Wright takes a swipe again at the “old perspective,” as if the “let go and let God” teaching of Wesleyan groups (especially Keswick) were one with Luther and Calvin: “And if, as a late-flowering but spurious post-Reformation romanticism and existentialism has conditioned people to think, we simply ‘wait for the Spirit to do it within us,’ so that we only think it right to do that which ‘feels natural,’ we have missed the point entirely and are heading for serious trouble” (193).
“The point of future justification is then explained like this. The verdict of the last day will truly reflect what people have actually done” (191). He says that boast of “the Jew” in Romans 2 is not that they have and follow Torah, but, “Well, but I am the solution to this problem” (195). [What problem? They didn’t see the salvation of the Gentiles as a problem in the first place!] “He is not here demonstrating that all Jews are sinful. He is demonstrating that the boast of Israel, to be the answer to the world’s problem, cannot be made good” (195). However, there are several questions that might be raised against this interpretation. First, how does it fit with the conclusion to this argument in 3:19, namely, that every mouth is shut, the whole world is guilty before God, and there will therefore be no justification by works? Second, why are the Gentiles whom Paul has in mind described as idolaters and engaged openly in perverse immorality? All along, the examples Paul cites concern transgression of the moral law, not the ceremonies. Third, how could Paul mean that Gentile Christians do not have the written law, but only the moral law written on the conscience? Fourth, “doing the works” prescribed in the law cannot be limited to the ceremonies (boundary markers), since Paul’s polemic is against those who have kept these—and gloried in them! Finally, Wright says that Romans 2:27 is speaking of “Christian Gentiles, even though Paul has not yet developed that category” (190), but why would he begin an argument by employing a category he had not yet developed?
Wright also appeals to 1 Corinthians 3:12-15. The context is the Corinthian penchant for schism based on personalities. Paul seems to be saying that we are to await the last day, when the quality of the materials used (viz., the message and methods used in gospel ministry) will be tested and true churches will be revealed as such. However, Wright understands this passage as a more general reference to a final judgment based on works (185). The amount of material on future judgment can’t be swept aside, he says (186), as if this were a legitimate criticism of the “old perspective.”
This present-and-future justification motif highlights the single plan of a worldwide family promised to Abraham. Thus, Romans 9-11 picks up where Romans 2:27 left off, according to Wright. God has remained faithful to his covenant, despite all appearances to the contrary, precisely by making faith in Christ rather than circumcision that basis of covenant membership. Though ingenious (and, I would argue, containing important points present in chapters 9-11), the connection to 2:27 seems hermeneutically odd to me. Whatever its relative place in the same epistle, Romans 2:27 is part of an argument that leads naturally from the “thesis statement” (the gospel as the only power of God unto salvation for everyone, Jew or Gentile, 1:16), to the indictment of Gentiles (2:12-29) and Jews alike (3:1-20), with the conclusion that no one can be justified in the present or in the future on the basis of works, but only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed to the ungodly (3:21-8:39). Has God revoked his plan? Not at all, Paul answers in chapters 9-11. Justification has always been by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone—however the revelation of this gospel has been more fully unveiled in the new covenant. Nevertheless, Israel’s national status in the land was conditioned on strict obedience to Torah. It is this confusion of covenants that Paul is always working to untangle (especially in Galatians) and the failure to distinguish them that the new perspective continues to overlook. This in no way invites Wright’s sweeping claim, “Of course, as the literature shows abundantly, summaries of the ‘doctrine of justification’ down the years have regularly answered the question [of God’s revoking his plan] with ‘yes.’ God will revoke his plan! Torah will be set aside as a failed first attempt to rescue humans!” (199)
Romans 3, then, introduces the need for a faithful Israel, since the nation had been exiled for its sins. “It was not so much that ‘God needed a sinless victim,’ though in sacrificial terms that is no doubt true as well, as that ‘God needed a faithful Israelite,’ to take upon himself the burden of rescuing the world from its sin and death” (204). Once more, one wonders why Wright has trouble with the doctrine of Christ’s active obedience, since its intent is to make this point. “[Ernst] Käsemann was desperately anxious to prevent Paul from having anything to do with the ‘covenant,’ lest his theology collapse back into Jewish particularism. He nevertheless conceded that 3:25-26 certainly looked like a Christian version of Jewish covenantal theology.” He recalls an angry Lutheran complaining to Fortress Press for publishing such an obvious piece of Reformed theology: viz., covenant (205).
He repeats that “‘righteous’ here does not mean ‘morally virtuous.’ It means, quite simply, that the court has found in your favor.
That is why the declarative verb dikaioō, ‘to justify,’ can be said to indicate the creation of something, the making of something. But, as we noted earlier, the thing that is made is not a moral character, not an infused virtue, but a status…Notice what has not happened, within this lawcourt scene. The judge has not clothed the defendant with his own ‘righteousness.’ That doesn’t come into it. Nor has he given the defendant something called ‘the righteousness of the Messiah’—or, if he has, Paul has not even hinted at it. What the judge has done is to pass judicial sentence on sin, in the faithful death of the Messiah, so that those who belong to the Messiah, though in themselves ‘ungodly’ and without virtue or merit, now find themselves hearing the lawcourt verdict, ‘in the right.’ And the point, putting covenant and lawcourt together, is that this is what the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world was designed to do!…Here again is the truth to which, at its best, the doctrine of ‘imputed righteousness’ can function as a kind of signpost. God has ‘put forth’ Jesus so that, through his faithful death, all those who belong to him can be regarded as having died. God raised him up so that, through his vindication, all those who belong to him can be regarded as being themselves vindicated (206).
Why does Wright object to the language of believers being “clothed” with Christ’s righteousness? He has already spoken of Philippians 3 referring to Paul’s experience as a Jew, being “clothed with righteousness,” demonstrated by Torah-righteousness, so why not the obverse? And if Jesus had done what Israel (and the world “in Adam”) failed to do, namely to fulfill the commission entailed by the law, even to the point of bearing their curse, why can’t this be called “the imputation of Christ’s righteousness,” especially since “impute/credit” and its cognates are actually used, along with images of “clothing”?
Perplexity concerning Wright’s critique mounts as he comes close to stating the classic covenantal perspective: “‘The faithfulness of the Messiah’ is, actually, a way of stressing—as one might have thought any good Reformed theologian would welcome!—the sovereignty of God and the unshakeable, rock-bottom reality, within the events of justification and salvation, not of the faith of those being justified, but of the representative and therefore substitutionary death of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus” (207). Faith isn’t the basis, but the badge (207-209). “What becomes of boasting? It is excluded” (Rom 3:27). “The ‘boast’ in question is the ‘boast’ of Romans 2:17-20: the ‘boast’ that Israel would take its place within the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world, the boast not merely of superiority (and perhaps salvation) because of Torah-possession (and the attempt at Torah-keeping) but of a superior calling within God’s purposes.” “’Boasting excluded—by what Torah? A Torah of works? No—but by the Torah of faith’ (Romans 3:27). Who are God’s people? They are those who keep the Torah—but whose Torah-keeping consists of faith” (211). “Nomos” here as limited to “Torah” is questionable. Plus, what does this do to the earlier argument that Torah-keeping consists of Torah-keeping and the final justification is according to works?
Again he repeats: “‘make righteous’ here does not mean ‘make them morally upright or virtuous’ but rather ‘make them ‘people-in-whose-favor-the-verdict-has-been-given.’
The idea that what sinners need is for someone else’s ‘righteousness’ to be credited to their account simply muddles up the categories, importing with huge irony into the equation the idea that the same tradition worked so hard to eliminate, namely the suggestion that, after all, ‘righteousness’ here means ‘moral virtue,’ ‘the merit acquired from lawkeeping’ or something like that. We don’t have any of that, said the Reformers, so we have to have someone else’s credited to us, and ‘justification’ can’t mean ‘being made righteous,’ as though God first pumps a little bit of moral virtue into us and then generously regards the part as standing for the whole. No, replies Paul, you’ve missed the point; you haven’t gone far enough in eliminating the last traces of medieval understanding. ‘Righteousness’ remains the status that you possess as a result of the judge’s verdict…’Imputed righteousness’ is a Reformation answer to a medieval question, in the medieval terms which were themselves part of the problem (213).
At this point, Wright returns to the category of future justification. The point of Romans 2:1-16 is this: “…justified in the future on the basis of the entire life!” “The judge has declared the verdict before the evidence has been produced!” (emphasis added). But then, one might ask, what becomes of a judgment based on works, on the basis of an entire life? Justification can be rendered in the present on the basis of “the extraordinary, unprecedented and unimagined fact of the resurrection itself coming forward into the present” (215). It seems that Wright plays with two conflicting ideas: present justification (according to faith) hopes for a corresponding future justification (according to works) vs. the future justification is brought forward into the present: the very same verdict, already announced and guaranteed. God’s purpose for Israel was fulfilled finally in the Messiah, his Son in whom he is well-pleased. “And what God said about Jesus in that moment, he said and says about all those who belong to Jesus the Messiah” (215).
Romans 4 is the lodestar for Wright on justification, as it is for Paul. “The point of Romans 4 is, in any case, not simply about ‘how people get justified,’” but (as in Gal 3) the question, “who are the family of Abraham?” (217). But look at the construction of Paul’s argument in Romans 4: “Therefore, it is by faith, so that it might be in accordance with grace, so that the promise might be confirmed for all the seed, not only that which is from the law but also that which is from the faith of Abraham…” Doesn’t Paul’s own construction of the argument suggest that the “single family of Abraham” is the benefit of justification rather than justification itself? Wright adds, “Literally, more or less word by word, the sentence [4:1] reads, ‘What then shall we say to have found Abraham our forefather according to the flesh?’” But Wright suggests that “What shall we say that Abraham found [in this matter]” “is an odd way of saying even what the normal theory wants Paul to have said” (218). Wright translates, “What then shall we say? Have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?” (219). But this makes no sense with the next sentence: “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has a boast—but not in the presence of God.”
Wright adds, “What follows in Romans 4:4-8 makes it crystal clear that ‘reckoned it as righteousness’ means that although Abraham was ‘ungodly,’ a ‘sinner,’ God did not count this against him” (220). And the promise “was not, as the old perspective might have imagined, ‘the promise that his sins would be forgiven and that he would go to heave when he died.’ It was rather, that he would have a family as numerous as the stars in the heavens (Genesis 15:5)” (220). However, we may ask why David and the forgiveness of sins in the next breath? Wright simply explains away 4:4-5 in another sweeping polemic:
The brief discussion in Romans 4:4-5 about people ‘earning a reward’ (or not as the case may be) does not mean that Paul is after all talking about proto-Pelagianism, self-help moralism or whatever, except to this extent: that he is ruling out any suggestion that Abraham might have been ‘just the sort of person God was looking for,’ so that there might be some merit prior to the promise, in other words, some kind of ‘ boast’ (220).
He does affirm “the non-reckoning of sin” (220). So there’s imputation, at least non-imputation! In fact, “Forgiveness—the non-reckoning of sin—is thus right at the heart of the larger picture which Paul is sketching, but we must not for that reason ignore that larger picture” (221).
At several points, I have pointed out where Wright verges on the doctrine of Christ’s active obedience, only to pull back. At this point, he speaks to it directly: “We note in particular that the ‘obedience’ of Christ is not designed to amass a treasury of merit which can then be ‘reckoned’ to the believer, as in some Reformed schemes of thought, but is rather a way of saying what Paul says more fully in Philippians 2:8, that the Messiah was obedient all the way to death, even the death on the cross.” He is the faithful Israelite who fulfills the single plan for one family (228). It’s not just that people can go to heaven when they die now, but that the age to come has in some sense already dawned, which encompasses all of creation (228).
On one hand, he seems to assume that he invented “union with Christ” and was the first to observe and it “fully dovetails” with “the doctrine of justification.” “It is not the case, in other words, that one has to choose between ‘justification by faith’ and ‘being in Christ’ as the ‘center’ of Paul’s thought. As many Reformed theologians in particular have seen—though one would not know it from reading John Piper, Stephen Westerholm and many others—the two must not be played off against one another, and indeed they can only be understood in relation to one another” (228-229). Paul “…established in Romans 6:1-11 that what is true of the Messiah (dying to sin, rising to new life) is now to be ‘reckoned’ as true of all who are baptized into him…” (229).
Wright nicely points up that Romans 6 isn’t a shift from “doctrine” to “ethics,” but continuing the same covenantal story of exodus through water. “Baptism recapitulates the story of Israel’s escape from Egypt and, as in Romans 8, of the journey to the promised land—in this case, the entire new creation”(230). The Sinai covenant “began with grace…, and ended with the promise of blessing on obedience and the warning of curse on disobedience (Deuteronomy)” (230). It is here—in Romans 6—not in “the active obedience of Christ” that we find Paul’s line of thought. The law was never given as a moral ladder of merit, but as the way for the redeemed to live (231-232). But does this entirely account for Jesus’ “woes,” or even with what Wright himself has just said: “warning of curse on disobedience”? Deuteronomy doesn’t present the Torah as simply a “reasonable service” for those who are redeemed, as Paul assumes concerning the moral law in Romans 12:1-5.
In any case, “It is not the ‘righteousness’ of Jesus Christ which is ‘reckoned’ to the believer. It is his death and resurrection…All that the supposed doctrine of the ‘imputed righteousness of Christ’ has to offer is offered instead by Paul under this rubric, on these terms and within this covenantal framework” (232-233). “There are many things which are pastorally helpful in the short or medium term which are not in fact grounded on the deepest possible reading of Scripture” (233).
Wright next turns to Romans 8, launching out with another caricature: “What has been lacking in much of the tradition has been the interlocking Pauline features of (a) the renewal of creation and (b) the indwelling of the Spirit” (236). We partake of salvation in advance. “At the same time he insists that the signs of the Spirit’s life must be present: if anyone doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, that person doesn’t belong to him (Romans 8:9), and ‘if you live according to the flesh, you will die’ (Romans 8:13)”
You cannot, in short, have a Pauline doctrine of assurance (and the glory of the Reformation doctrine of justification is precisely assurance) without the Pauline doctrine of the Spirit. Try to do it, and you will put too much weight on human faith, which will then generate all kinds of further questions about types of faith, about faith and feelings, about what happens when faith wobbles. This, in turn, will generate worried reactions, as people look on and see a supposed Protestantism which appears to regard strong emotional certainty of being saved as the criterion for being saved in fact (237).
“The trouble with some would-be Reformation theology is that it is not only insufficiently biblical. It is also insufficiently trinitarian” (239). Since it is not clear what “would-be Reformation theology” he has in mind, it is difficult to know quite how to respond, except to say that the Reformed tradition has been thoroughly shaped in its covenant theology by a trinitarian perspective. Its emphasis on the Spirit’s person and work is especially pronounced, particularly in the light of other Protestant trajectories.
Do we then overthrow the Reformation tradition by this theology? On the contrary, we establish it. Everything Luther and Calvin wanted to achieve is within this glorious Pauline framework of thought. The difference is that, whereas for some of their followers it really did look as though the sun was going round the earth, we have now glimpsed the reality (252).
To employ his own analogy, there are indeed impressive pieces of Paul’s puzzle in Wright’s box to make sense of some of the arguments. However, the best pieces are drawn from biblical-theological box-tops that Reformed theologians have long recognized. “Israel recapitulates the primal sin of Adam and Eve” (241). “Embrace the God-given law, Paul says to his fellow Jews (to his own former self!) and you are embracing that which must declare you to be a transgressor, a lawbreaker, on all fours with the ‘sinners’ who are outside God’s covenant” (243). However, Wright is working with only one covenant and this inevitably constrains his interpretation throughout. In Romans 10 Paul “is thinking, in fact, of a covenant renewal which will be recognizably that of which Deuteronomy 30 was speaking when it spoke of ‘doing of the law’ which was not difficult, requiring someone to bring it down from heaven or out of the depths of the sea” (245). However, this misses the important and intentional switch of terms in Romans 10. Instead of saying that Torah—God’s law—is not far off, Paul speaks of the gospel. Wright puts his own conclusion in italics: “When people believe the gospel of Jesus and his resurrection, and confess him as Lord, they are in fact doing what Torah wanted all along, and are therefore displaying the necessary marks of covenant renewal” (245). However, this is to turn the law into the gospel.
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.