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Wright Wednesdays: Part 5

[We’re continuing with Mike Horton’s review of N.T. Wright’s Justification, a response to the critique of John Piper and others to his version of the New Perspective on Paul, especially as it relates to the Reformation’s understanding of justification.]

Justification and God’s Righteousness: Covenant and Eschatology

Wright sees Genesis 15 as the background for everything that Paul says in Romans 4 (66).  So too did the Reformers (especially Calvin) and the federal theologians who followed.  Wright is even willing to speak of Abraham’s righteousness as “his right standing within that covenant, and God’s righteousness” as “his unswerving commitment to be faithful to that covenant—including the promise (Romans 4:13) that Abraham would inherit the world.  Here we have it: God’s single plan, through Abraham and his family, to bless the whole world.  That is what I have meant by the word covenant when I have used it as shorthand in writing about Paul” (67).

Wright does a great job of showing how Romans 4 is rooted in Genesis 15, Deuteronomy 27-30, and Daniel 9 (67).  However, since he is only working with “one covenant” and his “single-plan” emphasis eschews any nuance between different types of covenants (a temporal-typological and an eschatological homeland) even within this one plan, he mistakenly assumes that Deuteronomy (the Sinaitic covenant) is just another form of the Abrahamic promise except for its ethnic exclusivism (esp. 67).  Wright is most persuasive in his insistence that justification be interpreted in the light of God’s covenantal promise.  This is something I never heard in mainstream evangelicalism, but have heard repeatedly from Reformed theologians.  “As in Daniel 9, it is because of God’s faithfulness to the covenant that he must punish his faithless covenant people, and as a result their covenant failure (‘unrighteousness’) thus shows up his covenant faithfulness all the more” (68).

It’s not an abstract point that Paul is making, Wright correctly insists, but one that is bound up with the covenant history of Israel.  “The point of Romans 3:1-8 is not a general discussion about God’s attributes and human failure,” he properly contends.  Nevertheless, again we meet an example of a good point swallowing other important things whole: “Likewise, the unfaithfulness of the Israelites is not their lack of belief…The point is that God has promised to bless the world through Israel, and Israel has been faithless to that commission” (67).  Paul expressly says in Romans that his countrymen according to the flesh were condemned for refusing to place their faith in Christ rather than in their own works (Rom 9:32).  The writer to the Hebrews says that the wilderness generation was barred from entering the promised land because they did not respond in faith to the preaching of the gospel (Heb 3:16-19).  As covenant theology has emphasized, the covenants with Adam and Israel are indeed a commission to bring God’s righteous kingdom to the ends of the earth.  However, it is not only a commission to global mission, but a specific kind of commission to fulfill all righteousness.  Adam and Israel were entrusted with God’s law, on trial in God’s garden, and both probations ended in the failure of the covenant partner.  This is the bleak backdrop of Jesus’ identity as the Last Adam and True Israel.  However, for Wright there is no distinction between covenants: judgment on the basis of Sinai (Dt 27-30), with deliverance on the basis of the Abrahamic promise (Gen 15).

Remarkably, Wright accuses the old perspective (or at least Piper) of down-playing the law-court metaphor (68).  This is highly ironic, given the fact that the grounding of justification in the law-court (imputation rather than infusion) has been the heart of the debate between Reformation and Roman Catholic interpretations.  As in his other books, Wright mistakenly assumes that the Reformation view argues that God’s essential righteousness—in other words, his own attribute of righteousness—is somehow given to believers.  But this overlooks the crucial role of Jesus Christ as mediator in the traditional view: It is not God’s attribute of righteousness, but the right-standing that results from a complete fulfillment of God’s law, that is imputed to believers.  It is Christ’s obedience, not his essence, that becomes ours.  Further, Wright appears to argue against the “old perspective” as if it were the very opposite (viz., the Roman view).   In this context, Wright insists, “righteous” doesn’t mean “virtuous,” but in right standing (68).  “That ‘finding in favor,’ that declaration, is ‘justification’; the result is that Bildad is now ‘righteous,’ that is, ‘in the right.’  This does not mean, primarily, that Bildad is virtuous, certainly not that he has a special concern for the glory of the judge” (69).  Why does Wright keep criticizing justification as “making virtuous” as if it is the Reformation view, when it is precisely the view that the reformers rejected?

Unlike his other works, in this book Wright does recognize that Calvin did not completely miss these crucial aspects: the Genevan reformer emphasized that we are saved by grace, but also affirmed that God saved us for obedience.  (Surely Wright is not unaware of Luther’s similar point, often observed under such maxims as “justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone”?)  This, Wright suggests, is nothing more or less than “what Ed Sanders was arguing about Torah-keeping within Judaism.  That is ‘covenantal nomism’: now that you’re in the covenant, here is the law to keep” (72).  However, this is a very grace-friendly interpretation of Sanders.  Of course, his thesis is that Judaism is a religion of grace rather than of moralistic self-salvation.  However, Sanders can only say this because his own synergistic theology assumes that grace is a necessary but not sufficient cause of salvation.  Sanders himself points out in that seminal work the extent to which early Judaism taught a view of “salvation” that was clearly dependent on our works (the “merit of the fathers” and the good works of the righteous outweighing their sins, etc.).  Sanders’ formula was actually “get in by grace, stay in by obedience.”

Neither Sanders nor Wright recognizes any difference between this Sinai covenant and the Abrahamic covenant of grace.  Sanders’ formula does indeed capture the substance of the Sinai covenant, which pertained to the national status of ethnic Israel in the typological land.  Israel was given the land by promise, not because of merits (Dt 8).  Nevertheless, Israel could remain in God’s land only by doing everything contained in the law.  The conditions and sanctions are “do or die.”  This is not how Israelites were “saved” (i.e., justified before God), but it is the basis of their title to the land as a nation prefiguring the messianic kingdom.

Wright also observes, “Many a good old perspective Calvinist has declared that the best way to understand justification is within the context of ‘being in Christ’: the two need not be played off against one another, and indeed they hardly can be without tearing apart some of Paul’s most tightly argued passages (e.g., Galatians 3:22-29 or Philippians 3:7-11)” (72).  Even more: “In Calvin and his followers…the great emphasis is on the single plan of God, the fact that God has not changed his mind” (73).  Then why did he assert repeatedly until now that being in Christ, and the single-plan based on God’s promise to Abraham, are themes virtually ignored by the whole Protestant tradition?

Paul’s point in Romans 3 is that “since the whole human race is in the dock, guilty before God, ‘justification’ will always then mean ‘acquittal,’ the granting of the status of ‘righteous’ to those who had been on trial—and which will then also mean, since they were in fact guilty, ‘forgiveness’” (90).  So it can’t mean Augustine’s “to make righteous,” i.e., “transforming the character of the person” (91).  It “does not denote an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status” (91).   At this point, one might have expected Wright to announce that he embraces the Reformation interpretation of justification over against the Roman Catholic view.  However, he sweeps them together.  Unlike “the post-Augustinian tradition,” Paul didn’t understand justification “to cover the whole range of ‘becoming a Christian’ from first to last…” (81).  Surely Wright must be aware of the reformers’ reluctant but firm criticism of Augustine and the medieval view at just this point (confusing justification and sanctification).

Romans 3 is not concerned with “a ‘moral righteousness,’” but “the status of the person whom the court has vindicated,” Wright insists, criticizing not only Piper but Stephen Westerholm and Mark Seifrid for dismissing the importance of the covenant-motif (92-93).  I concur with Wright entirely when he writes, “The contrast between promise and law is not merely that they function differently as abstract systems.  The contrast is that ‘the covenant’ is what God made with Abraham, the agreement that through him god would bless the whole world, giving him a single worldwide family, while ‘the law’ is what God gave to Moses, for reasons that will become (more or less) apparent, but which cannot include abolishing or tampering with ‘the covenant’ God had already made with Abraham…” (98).  Paul points out that “the promises to Abraham and his family were that they should inherit (not ‘the land,’ merely, but) ‘the world’ (Romans 4:13).  This is exactly the point” (99).  He adds, “It is also forensic, understanding the covenantal history within the lawcourt framework, not as an arbitrary metaphor chosen at random but precisely because the covenant was there as God’s chosen means of putting things right.  And it is also, of course, eschatological” (100).

Paul believed, in short, that what Israel had longed for God to do for it and for the world, God had done for Jesus, bringing him through death and into the life of the age to come.  Eschatology: the new world had been inaugurated!  Covenant: God’s promises to Abraham had been fulfilled!  Lawcourt: Jesus had been vindicated—and so also all those who belonged to Jesus will be vindicated as well!  And these, for Paul, were not three, but one.  Welcome to Paul’s doctrine of justification, rooted in the single scriptural narrative as he read it, reaching out to the waiting world.  The eschatology, though, was as I said only partially realized (101).

The problem, as I see it, is that Wright can explain Paul’s contrast between law and promise, Sinai/Moses and Abraham, only on the basis of the former’s exclusivity rather than on the conditional character of the national covenant distinct from the gospel that God also promised to Abraham and foreshadowed in the typological rites of Israel’s worship.  He is right to criticize an abstract opposition of law and promise, but doesn’t recognize the deeper reasons why Paul indeed argues for a strict opposition when it comes to the question of how one is right with God.

Once more we are told, “This is the trouble with the great tradition, from Augustine onward: not that it has not said many true and useful things, but that by using the word ‘justification’ as though it described the entire process from grace to glory it has given conscientious Pauline interpreters many sleepless nights trying to work out how what he actually says about justification can be made to cover this whole range without collapsing into nonsense or heresy or both” (102).  But he nowhere observes that this “great tradition from Augustine onward” does not include the Reformation but was in fact the target of the reformers’ objections.  These sweeping indictments are made all the more confusing when Wright adds comments such as the following: “As John Calvin rightly saw—and as Paul himself said, in the first paragraph he ever wrote on the subject—we are ‘justified in Christ’ (Galatians 2:17)” (102).  Again, I ask, what then of the sweeping charge that nobody in the old perspective really understood this point?

Wright helpfully observes that “this faithful obedience of the Messiah, culminating in his death ‘for our sins in accordance with the scriptures’ as in one of Paul’s summaries of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:3), is regularly understood in terms of the Messiah, precisely because he represents his people, now appropriately standing in for them, taking upon himself the death which they deserved, so that they might not suffer it themselves.  This is most clearly expressed, to my mind, in two passages: Romans 8:3, where Paul declares that God ‘condemned sin in the flesh’ (note, he does not say that God ‘condemned Jesus,’ but that ‘he condemned sin in the flesh’ of Jesus); and 2 Corinthians 5:21a, where he says that God ‘made him to be sin [for us] who knew no sin’” (105).  “Notice how the sterile old antithesis between ‘representation’ and ‘substitution’ is completely overcome.  The Messiah is able to be the substitute because he is the representative” (106).  With these assumptions, it is puzzling to me at least why Wright would have trouble with “this faithful obedience of the Messiah” and his representation or “standing in for” as a righteousness that is credited or imputed to his people.

“Fifth, the resurrection of the Messiah is, for Paul, the beginning of the entire new creation” (106).  “Sixth—it may feel like a different subject, but for Paul it belongs right here—the ‘Spirit of his Son’ (Galatians 4:6), the ‘Spirit of [the Messiah]’ (Romans 8:9), is poured out upon the Messiah’s people, so that they become in reality what they already are by God’s declaration: God’s people indeed, his ‘children’ (Romans 8:12-17; Galatians 4:4-7) within a context replete with overtones of Israel as ‘God’s son’ at the exodus” (106-107).  “Seventh, and finally, the point which has just been hinted at: for Paul, Jesus’ messiahship constitutes him as the judge on the last day” (107).  “And at that judgment seat the verdict will be in accordance with one’s ‘works’” (108).  The old perspective has not had any trouble affirming the abundant exegetical warrant for a final judgment of works.  Not only are believers judged worthy in Christ already (justification), but they will be publicly revealed as “the righteous” in glory (as sanctification is immediately perfected in the glorification/resurrection of the dead).  The danger, however, is in making faith the condition of present justification and works the condition of an eschatological justification in the future.  In my view, it is more consonant with Paul’s eschatology to speak not of present and future justification, but justification as the already fully-realized verdict that ensures our eschatological glorification.

Next week, we’ll spend some time looking at Wright’s formulation of faith and faithfulness in relation to Christ and his work of passive and active obedience.

WHI-962 | The Wages of Spin

Has American Christianity become more concerned with success than fidelity? Has it chosen style over substance? On this edition of the White Horse Inn, Michael Horton talks about these issues with Dr. Carl Trueman, professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, and author of The Wages of Spin.


The Legacy of Charles Finney
Michael Horton
Using God
Kim Riddlebarger
Michael Horton


The Wages of Spin
Carl R. Trueman
Precious Blood
Carl R. Trueman and others
The Doctrine of Justification
John Owen


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Artist: Dave Hlebo

Some Initial Thoughts on Osteen’s Latest

So, Joel Osteen sent us an email yesterday to let us know about his new book, It’s Your Time. Joel wanted us to know that we could achieve our dreams with his new book. That was the subject line, seriously.

Here’s more encouragement from Joel O.:

Get your hopes up. Raise your expectations. Expect the unexpected. In challenging times, it may be hard to see better days ahead.

You may feel as though your struggles will never end, that things won’t ever turn around.

This is exactly the moment when you should seek and expect God’s blessings.

It’s your time to declare your faith, to look for God’s favor and to give control of your life to Him so that you can find fulfillment in His plans for you!

Joel Osteen

One of our stalwart staffers actually read through the little teaser that’s posted online and wondered how some of the following pick-me-ups would sound to believers in Africa, right before they are martyred for their faith.

God wants to breathe new life into your dreams. He wants to breathe new hope into your heart. You may be about to give up on a marriage, on a troubled child, on a lifelong goal. But God wants you to hold on. He says if you’ll get your second wind, if you’ll put on a new attitude and press forward like you’ll headed down the final stretch, you’ll see Him begin to do amazing things.

Tune out the negative messages. Quit telling yourself: I’m never landing back on my feet financially. I’m never breaking this addiction. I’m never landing a better job.

Instead, your declarations should be: I am closer than I think. I can raise this child. I can overcome this sickness. I can make this business work. I know I can find a new job.

Take your dreams and the promises God has put in your heart, and every day declare that they will come to pass. Just say something like, “Father, I want to thank you that my payday is coming. You said no good thing will You withhold because I walk uprightly. And I believe even right now you’re arranging things in my favor.”

When you’re tempted to get down and things are not going your way, you need to keep telling yourself “This may be hard. It may be taking a long time. But I know God is a faithful God. And I will believe knowing that my payday is on its way.”

Whenever life grows difficult, and the pressure is turned up, that’s a sign that your time is near. When lies bombard your mind. When you are most tempted to get discouraged. And when you feel like throwing in the towel. That’s not the time to give up. That’s not the time to back down. That’s the time to dig in your heels. Put on a new attitude. You are closer than you think.

God promises your payday is on its way. If you’ll learn to be a prisoner of hope and get up every day expecting God’s favor, you’ll see God do amazing things. You’ll overcome every obstacle. You’ll defeat every enemy. And I believe and declare you’ll see every dream, every promise God has put in your heart. It will come to pass.

One of the WHI hosts read the whole thing (God bless him) and said:

I didn’t do a search on “Jesus” or “Jesus Christ,” but I don’t think I happened across His name — let alone His work as Priest or anything even close to it?  You may avoid a ticket, your wife may find a lost ring, but sub specie aeternitatus [from the persepective of the eternal] there’s real trouble up ahead, Pastor!  Any idea why that might be?  Or even what I’m referring to in my words?

Just for the record, out of the fourteen free pages of teaser text about “faith, favor, and fulfillment,” there isn’t one, not one mention of Jesus.

Five for Friday

We’re starting a new feature at the WHI blog, Five for Friday. Five for Friday is so named because we’ll ask five questions of pastors, missionaries, theologians, and regular Joes/Joans who are working for Reformation and post their answers on Fridays. Clever, I know.

If you know of people who are leading the way forward to a new Reformation in their native countries, within their denominations, or in their congregations, we’d love to feature their stories. Send us an email and we’ll send them our five questions.

Our inaugural guest is Sebastian Heck, who is working to establish a Reformed presence in Germany, starting in Heidelberg.

What historical connection does Heidelberg have with the Protestant Reformation?

When Frederick the III became elector of the Palatinate, the region surrounding Heidelberg, the city of Heidelberg quickly rose to become one of the most prominent centers of Reformed theology in all of Europe. Through the assiduous publication of Reformed literature as well as the training of hundreds of Reformed pastors who went out from Heidelberg to many different contries, Heidelberg eventually merited the name “the Geneva of the North.” While the Lutheran Reformation had begun almost 50 years earlier, in the early 1560s, Germany experienced what many call a “second Reformation” – the Reformed Reformation. One of the best known and most beloved products of that time is the Heidelberg Catechism which, upon publication in 1563, was immediately translated in many different languages and became the confessional statement uniting Reformed believers across European borders. While Geneva affected primarily Switzerland and France, Heidelberg led to the founding and prospering of Reformed churches in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and many other countries. Even the United States would soon benefit from Reformed believers emmigrating and bringing the robust faith of the Heidelberg Catechism to the shores of the New World.

Germany is in most people’s minds associated with Martin Luther and Lutheranism. What is the state of confessional, Reformational Lutheranism in Germany?

It is true that people usually associate Reformation Germany with Martin Luther and Lutheranism and not so much with the Reformed faith, but Germany did have a strong Reformed church, at least for a few decades.  There are two major expressions of Lutheranism in Germany today. The first is the Lutheran State Churches. The better and healthier of these are usually the ones that were heavily affected by Pietism. Pietism served as a cushion against liberalism and higher criticism. In general, the State Churches tend to be quite liberal and miss one, two, or all three of the marks that we believe make a true church. The buildings, the liturgies, the hymnody and psalmody might still be there, but unfortunately the gospel has been excused, and along with it the proper administration of the sacraments. The second expression of Lutheranism is the so called “Independent Evangelical-Lutheran Church” with about 200 congregations, a sister church to the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. It is by far the more conservative of the two, but even this church is struggling with the influx of liberalism as well as issues such as pressure to allow women ordination.

What are the greatest dangers to reformation in modern day Germany?

The greatest danger to reformation in modern day Germany is simply this: that no one might be interested in doing it. Many believers, both in Germany and outside of it, have capitulated and no longer believe reformation to be possible. Disbelief in the sovereignty of God is a great hindrance to any work of reformation. But so is an exceedingly broad and superficial evangelicalism, or even an “evangelical,” non-confessional version of Reformed Christianity in Germany.

What we need is not necessarily Martin Luthers or John Calvins, but faithful, well-trained pastors who are willing to suffer and be persecuted – and churches that rely utterly and completely on the promises of God as well as the means he has ordained for the planting, the growth, and the perseverance of the church. Any compromise in these areas is bound to suffocate any impulse towards reformation.

What does your group try to do to influence German Reformation?

Reformation2Germany is an endeavor to do three things: (1) to plant confessional Reformed churches that rely on a Word & Sacrament ministry, i.e. the means of grace, (2) to publish Reformed ressources, both popular and academic, both contemporary and classics, through our publishing house Wortverlag, (3) to train pastors. We believe all these things need to be there and to feed into each other for any work of reformation to be sustained. As there is currently no confessional Reformed denomination in Germany, with the first church plants we are laying the ground work for a new Reformed denomination in Germany and hope to be able to train our own pastors.

How can donors who are willing to stand with you help the cause?

As you can imagine, the entire work of Reformation2Germany needs solid outside funding. It is next to impossible, at least initially, to garner any support from within Germany, given the state of the churches there. For convenience sake, we maintain a project support account with Mission To The World (PCA) where you can easily donate. Please find detailed information on our website. Even with a small but faithful donation you can help bring the reformation back to the Land of the Reformation and return a favor that has once been granted to you.

For further information, to donate or to sign up for the Reformation2Germany newsletter, please visit our website.

Wright Wednesdays: part 4

Justification and God’s Righteousness: Imputation and the Future Hope

Whatever the merits of John Piper’s critique, it is disappointing that Wright fails to engage with “old perspective” writers who emphasize the importance of covenant and eschatology as he does but without surrendering the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.  “Biblicism,” the assumption that a concept must be stated in so many words in the Bible in order for it to attain the status of a biblical doctrine, is apparent in Wright’s rhetorical question: “if ‘imputed’ righteousness is so utterly central, so nerve-janglingly vital, so standing-and-falling-church important as John Piper makes out, isn’t it strange that Paul never actually came straight out and said it?” (46). How would Wright defend the doctrine of the Trinity?  Or the hypostatic union in the incarnation?  Systematic and historical theology appeal to a host of concepts and terms that are not found expressly in Scripture that are nevertheless crucial for stating precisely the intention of the whole teaching of Scripture on a given topic.  Indeed, Wright employs many constructions that articulate a biblical view that cannot be found in exactly the same words in the Bible.

There may be legitimate exegetical debates over what exactly Paul means by logizomai and its cognates (particularly what is imputed and why), but it is generally agreed to mean “impute” or “credit.”  In fact, Wright has no trouble holding that the believer’s sins are imputed to Christ, so why the difficulty with the imputation of his righteousness?  Jesus says that the sinner rather than the Pharisee “went to his house justified” through faith in God’s mercy (Luke 18:14).  Like other terms, such as “redemption,” “salvation,” “atonement,” “the new birth,” the importance of justification cannot be determined by a word-count.  The biblicistic tendency emerges again when Wright says that “all the discussion of ‘formal cause’ of justification as against the ‘material cause’” represents an intrusion of questions alien to Paul and the first century (50).  Yet in the next chapter, he even quotes Daniel 9:4-19, including the penultimate sentence: “We do not present our supplications before you on the ground of our righteousness (epi tais dikaiosynais hēmōn, translating al tsidqothenu), but on the ground of your great mercies” (62, emphasis added).  The formal cause of our salvation is God’s grace, the material cause (or ground) is Christ, and the instrument through which we receive it is faith: salvation by grace, in Christ, through faith.  What is so anachronistic about this?  I think it is pretty obvious in Paul—and in passages like Daniel 9.

Over and over again, Wright insists that when the Bible talks about righteousness, whether God’s or ours, it’s not talking about “virtuous acts,” but keeping covenant promises (63).  Aside from whether keeping your word is a virtuous act, who is he targeting?  [Wright correctly rejects Piper’s definition of “righteousness” as “God’s concern for God’s own glory” (64)].  Wright follows Ernst Käsemann in arguing that God’s righteousness is chiefly “his faithfulness to, and his powerful commitment to rescue, creation itself.”  For Wright, it is even more specific: “…in Paul’s reading of Scripture, God’s way of putting the world right is precisely through his covenant with Israel” (65).  Righteousness is relational, but not in the sense of “getting to know someone personally,” but rather in terms of “how they stand in relation to one another”—i.e., “the status of their relationship” (66).  In my view, this is another case of overstatement—an over-correction of pietistic individualism.  “God’s righteousness”—especially in the Psalms and prophets—clearly includes an important aspect of divine faithfulness to the covenant.  In this sense, justification clearly includes not only God’s “righting” of sinners apart from their works, but of righting the world.  The resurrection of the righteous, which most Jews longed for, is clearly tied especially in Paul to the justification of the ungodly who have already received this verdict in the present.  Christ not only bore our sins, so that we can withstand his judgment, but secured the righteousness and peace that will dominate all of creation at his return.  However, none of this future hope is conceivable apart from the repeated emphasis of Paul on the present justification of the ungodly by imputed Christ’s righteousness to all who trust in Christ.  Not only is all of this consistent with a Reformed understanding of justification; it is part and parcel of a great deal of exegesis even before Käsemann, much less Wright.

Next week we’ll turn to Wright’s misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the covenants God made with Abraham and Israel.

WHI-961 | Unfashionable

Is it possible that the contemporary church has been so caught up in the quest for relevance that it has ceased to be noticeably different from the world? That’s the thesis of Unfashionable, a new book by Tullian Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham, and pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. Michael Horton talks with Tullian about his important new book on this edition of the White Horse Inn.


Tullian Tchividjian
The Gospel-Driven Life
Michael Horton
Prophetic Untimeliness
Os Guinness


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Artist: Ex Nihilo; Song: “Here is Love”

Wright Wednesdays: part 3

[We’re continuing with Mike Horton’s review of N. T. Wright’s Justification]

Justification and God’s Single Plan: Justification and God’s People

Wright properly emphasizes the integral relationship between justification (soteriology) and the uniting of Jew and Gentile into one family in Christ (ecclesiology):

In Galatians 3:29, after heaping up almost all his great theological themes into a single pile—law, faith, children of God, ‘in Christ,’ baptism, ‘putting on Christ,’ ‘neither Jew nor Greek,’ ‘all one in Christ’—the conclusion is not ‘You are therefore children of God’ or ‘You are therefore saved by grace through faith,’ but ‘You are Abraham’s offspring.’  Why does that matter to Paul, and at that point?

Good question.  But it verges on bizarre that Wright could include Reformed theology in his sweeping indictment: “Most new perspective writers have no answer for that.  Virtually no old perspective ones even see that there is a question to be asked” (36).  Although he properly recognizes, “There is no such thing as a pure return to the Reformers,” Wright seems to think that he has attained a pure return to Paul, as if he did not bring his own questions and presuppositions to the text.  In fact, he advises, “For too long we have read Scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions.  It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first-century questions” (37).

Like many biblical theologians of late (even in Reformed circles), the question of how one is saved (the ordo salutis) is regarded as quite secondary to the main theme: the history of redemption (historia salutis).  Keeping these two aspects together was the genius of biblical theologians like Geerhardus Vos, but Wright’s penchant for downplaying the former over the latter has become standard fare.  For Wright especially, the proper concern for the history of redemption includes a strong sociological and political component: “Thus, for instance, the attempt to read a text like 1 Corinthians 1:30 (‘[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption’) in terms of an ordo salutis,” says Wright, “…is not only unlikely to make much sense in itself, but is highly likely to miss the point that Paul is making, which is the way in which the status of the believer in Christ overturns all the social pride and convention of the surrounding culture” (42).  The real problem with Paul’s opponents was not that they were trusting in their own obedience to the works of the law, he repeatedly insists, but that Jews and Gentiles alike were elitist.

Wright complains that the reformers simply did not read Paul with his own concerns in mind, such as God’s plan “to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10), with the two peoples (Jew and Gentile) becoming one family in Christ in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham (43).  If they had, then there would have been “no split between Romans 3:28 and Romans 3:29.  No marginalization of Romans 9-11” (44).  Again, at this point one suspects that Wright has constructed a straw opponent.  A cursory reading of Calvin’s Ephesians commentary tells a different story.  Nevertheless, Wright states confidently, “And, as I have argued before and hope to show here once more, many of the supposedly ordinary readings within the Western Protestant traditions have simply not paid attention to what Paul actually wrote” (50).  The Reformation tradition simply doesn’t see any “organic connection between justification by faith on the one hand and the inclusion of the Gentiles within God’s people on the other…” (53).

Wright insists that the Jews of Jesus’ day were waiting for God’s activity within history, for Israel and the world.  “They were not, in other words, understanding themselves as living in a narrative which said, ‘All humans are sinful and will go to hell; maybe God will be gracious and let us go to heaven instead and dwell with him; how will that come about?  Let’s look at our scriptures for advance clues’” (49).  As typical throughout this volume, Wright both caricatures the opposing view and transforms an important insight into the main point.  It is in the Gospels that we first encounter questions like, “What must I do to be saved?” and “Who then may be saved?” and “What is the work that I must do to be saved?”  Indeed, the severity of the sanctions for violating the Sinai covenant provoked this concern, particularly in the wake of the prophets’ judgments that were fulfilled in Israel’s exile.  But just as there is a greater exodus to come for all who believe, there is a greater exile.  Wright assumes that we’ve never talked about the first-century expectations being that of a political messiah who would end the exile and drive out the Romans.  Once again, his target is “a non-historical soteriology” (61).  The same criticisms can be found in Vos, Ridderbos, Murray, Kline, and host of other Reformed exegetes.  However, their target was not the Reformation but an individualistic and non-historical soteriology that is basically pietistic in origins.

Next week, we’ll look at Wright’s complaints about the importance we give to imputation.

Mega-disappointment and Ordinary Means

Carl Trueman’s newest post at Reformation21 gives great insight into the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement that is so widely discussed around the blogosphere and conference circuit.  His penultimate paragraph should be required reading for every church leader in the land:

Finally, I worry that a movement built on megachurches, megaconferences, and megaleaders, does the church a disservice in one very important way that is often missed amid all the pizzazz and excitement: it creates the idea that church life is always going to be big, loud, and exhilarating and thus gives church members and ministerial candidates unrealistic expectations of the normal Christian life.  In the real world, many, perhaps most,  of us worship and work in churches of 100 people or less; life is not loud and exciting; big things do not happen every Sunday;  budgets are incredibly tight and barely provide enough for a pastor’s modest salary; each Lord’s Day we go through the same routines of worship services, of hearing the gospel proclaimed, of taking the Lord’s Supper, of teaching Sunday School; perhaps several times a year we do leaflet drops in the neighbourhood with very few results; at Christmas time we carol sing in the high street and hand out invitations to church and maybe two or three people actually come along as a result; but no matter — we keep going, giving, and praying as we can; we try to be faithful in the little entrusted to us.  It’s boring, it’s routine, and it’s the same, year in, year out.   Therefore, in a world where excitement, celebrity, and cultural power are the ideal, it is tempting amidst the circumstances of ordinary church life to forget that this, the routine of the ordinary, the boring, the plodding, is actually the norm for church life and has been so throughout most places for most of the history of the church; that mega-whatevers are the exception, not the rule; and that the church has survived throughout the ages not just – or even primarily – because of the high profile firework displays of the great and the good, but because of the day to day faithfulness of the mundane, anonymous, non-descript  people who constitute most of the church, and who do the grunt work and the tedious jobs that need to be done.   History does not generally record their names; but the likelihood is that you worship in a church which owes everything, humanly speaking, to such people.

The Archbishop, the Reformation, and the Theology of the Cross

Our friends over at Mockingbird NYC posted a fantastic quote from Archbishop Rowan Williams’ book, The Wound of Knowledge, in which he draws a direct link between the Reformation’s rejection of the Roman Catholic Church’s claims to infallible authority and Luther’s Theology of the Cross.

The Reformation put a question of the utmost gravity to all Christians, a question about the continuity and dependability of human response to God. It affirmed that the Church was capable of error; that no amount of scholastic tidiness could guarantee fidelity to God; that there was in the Church no secure locus of unquestionable authority. It pointed eloquently to human brokenness, the failure of reason and order. But it did so only to claim triumphantly that the Church’s security lay in this very failure, in the insecurity and un-rootedness which drove it always back to its spring in the Word made broken flesh. Against the self-sufficiency of Christendom is set – rightly and decisively – the cross. To Christians looking for a sign, an assurance, it offered only the ‘sign of the Son of Man’, God hidden in the death of Christ… Luther is a reminder to Catholic and Protestant alike that the strength of Christianity is its refusal to turn away from the central and unpalatable facts of human self-destructiveness; that it is there, in the bitterest places of alienation, that the depth and scope of Christ’s victory can be tasted, and the secret joy which transforms all experience from within can come to birth, the hidden but all-pervading liberation. (p. 160-61)

W. H. Auden on the Crucifixion

Regular Modern Reformation contributor Rick Ritchie who blogs at Daylight sent over the following thought-provoking quote from the poet W. H. Auden:

Just as we are all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worthwhile asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I’m certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all too familiar sight – three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, ‘It’s disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can’t the authorities execute people humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?’ Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

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