White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

WHI-966 | Tactics (Part 2)

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.


Greg Koukl
The Reason for God
Timothy Keller
How to Speak, How to Listen
Mortimer Adler


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Artist: Soular; Song: “You Taste, You Feel”
Album: Love Crash Heal

WHI News

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!

October 15:

  • 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.”

October 17:

  • 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.

October 24:

  • 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.

October 30-31:

October 30-November 1:

Five for Friday

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:

  1. Gospel evangelism and discipleship
  2. Gospel church planting
  3. Gospel leaders developed and deployed
  4. 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:

  1. Program dependent
  2. Fascinated by personality leadership
  3. Financial decline
  4. Loss of impact, usually in the younger generation
  5. Numerical decline – decline of members
  6. Prayerlessness
  7. Loss of hope
  8. Nostalgia dominated
  9. Survival mentality and multiple excuses catalogued to rationalize ineffectiveness
  10. 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:

  1. Participatory God-centered worship
  2. Daily evangelism
  3. Sacrificial giving
  4. Observable sacrificial love of the brethren
  5. Primacy of the ministry of prayer and the Word
  6. Intentional disciple making through small groups
  7. Proper observation and implementation of the sacraments i.e. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
  8. Intimate fellowship and the use of spiritual gifts by the members of the church in ministry
  9. A sense of the presence of God
  10. 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).

Wright Wednesdays: Part 8

Justification and Romans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bushisms, Bidenisms, and Humility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Mike Horton

Two Kingdoms Questions (Part 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Mike Horton

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

WHI-965 | Tactics (Part 1)

Not only is it important to “know what you believe and why you believe it,” but it’s also crucial that we learn how to effectively communicate those beliefs to outsiders. How, for example, do we avoid getting into heated arguments? What’s the best way to challenge opposing points of view? On this edition of the White Horse Inn, the hosts discuss these matters with Greg Koukl, president of Stand to Reason and author of, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions.


Greg Koukl
The Reason for God
Timothy Keller
How to Speak, How to Listen
Mortimer Adler


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Artist: E-Pop; Song: “I’ll Fly Away”
Album: Rain City Hymnal, Vol.1

Responding to Questions About the Two Kingdoms (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Mike Horton

Responding to Some Good Questions About the Two Kingdoms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Mike Horton

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

Wright Wednesdays: Part 7

Justification and the Testimony of Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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