P. Andrew Sandlin, Founder & President, Center for Cultural Leadership

Archive for

All of the Sin, None of the Guilt

Posted on April 30, 2012

It’s utterly erroneous to assume that the gospel is failing in modern culture.  The gospel is more pervasive than ever.  The problem is that it’s a false gospel.

The Atlantic’s recent article “Lady Gaga’s Guilt-Free Gospel” raises the specter of Lady Gaga, apparently reared a “repressed” Catholic but whose musical lyrics now exalt sadomasochism and rape fantasies.   Today this world icon pop artist preaches a gospel of self-expression and –exaltation.  Above all, hers is a guiltless gospel:

Gaga … luxuriates in the absence of guilt. Again and again on Born This Way, she encourages her “Little Monsters” — these are her fans — to reject, defy, outwit, and ignore external judges of behavior: parents, boyfriends, kids at school. But internal shame — vestigial Catholic guilt, held over from Sunday School — for, say, premarital sex, dressing funny, hooking up with members of one’s own gender? For Gaga, such feelings are incomprehensible. She is certain of her own righteousness; her emotional enemy is not shame but insecurity.

The right Gospel — the Christian Gospel — depicts guilt in both its objective and subjective manifestations.  We are objectively guilty before God, because we have broken his law.  In short, we have sinned: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19).

This objective guilt before a holy God rightly induces subjective guilt, “guilt feelings,” as we say today: “‘And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise [his] eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (Lk. 18:13).

People who are objectively guilty because of their sin should feel subjectively guilty: they have broken God’s holy law, and they incite his judgment.  Subjective guilt prods them to appeal to God abolish their objective guilt.

This solution to both objective and subjective guilt is repentance and confession of our sin and utter reliance on the atoning work of Jesus Christ to save us (Rom. 3:21-26; 1 Jn. 1:9).

It’s possible because of false teaching and assumptions to suffer subjective guilt when there’s nothing to be guilty about.  Fundamentalists are routinely accused of this error: defining (for example) tobacco and alcohol consumption  and movie attendance as sin, thereby inducing feelings of guilt in those who violate these man-made moral codes, which are not, in fact, sin (1 Cor. 8:7).

In massive and lethal overreaction to this guilt-inducing moralism, the Lady Gagas of the world (and even some in the church) have abolished guilt from the pantheon of human existence.

Sinful humanity loves to get its way without divine interference (Gen. 3), and the guiltless gospel attempts to remove one of the final barriers to full human autonomy: God gave humanity a conscience to prick us when we break his law, in order to drive us to him for forgiveness and salvation (Jn. 8:9; Rom. 2:15; Heb. 10:22).

But when we purge guilt from our lives, we are actually saying that we don’t need salvation from sin, only from our own self-induced limitations and insecurities.

This is Gaga’s guiltless Gospel.  It implicitly declares: “I am not a sinner before God. God exists to make me all I was intended to be.  I am in charge of my life. I save myself by purging all my self-limitations.”

This is a false gospel that sends people like Lady Gaga to Hell — unless they acknowledge their guilt before God and repent.

Lady Gaga and her “Little Monsters” need more guilt, not less.

But theirs is a very prominent gospel in an age that prizes autonomy above all else.

This is the gospel — the gospel of damnation, not salvation.

On Cowering Before Scarecrows

Posted on April 30, 2012

“[I]f the data is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us a cult … some odd group that is not really interacting with the world. And rightly so, because we are not using our gifts and trusting God’s Providence that brought us to this point of our awareness.”

Bruce Waltke

Waltke, one of the premier and gifted evangelical Old Testament scholars of our time, worries that if the empirical data supports evolution yet evangelicals oppose it, we will (rightly) end up being viewed as a cult by the wider, enlightened culture. Waltke is only the latest example in an esteemed pedigree of Christians going back at least to Clement of Alexandria and in more recent centuries to the towering father of theological liberalism, Friedrich Schleiermacher.  The latter’s On Religion: Speeches to Cultured Despisers was, as its title indicates, calculated to smooth the way for the cultured literati of the 19th century to accept the seemingly outmoded religion of the Bible. Schleiermacher’s strategy was to transform Christianity from an affirmation of objective revelation in Jesus and the Bible to an interior feeling of dependence, serious reflection on which generated doctrine, practice, and the church.  This strategy of religious interiorization was well suited for a Romantic Age that had come to prize the inner self but could not shake off the gains of Enlightenment, which dictated a neutral scientific objectivity in the external, “real” world. Schleiermacher was among the first to beat a hasty religious retreat from empirical reality into the internal world (Francis Schaeffer later termed this move “leaping into the upper story”), but the price he paid for his interiorization project was high.  He set a course for Christianity according to which its sails were always set by the prevailing cultural winds, and his retreat to the interior guaranteed that the Faith could never challenge those trends in the external world.

Waltke, who holds the Bible in high regard, has suggested nothing so revolutionary; but his anxiety over evolution highlights how easy it is for even evangelical scholars to permit the perceptions of a culture (actual or perceived) to shape their theological views. If the first chapters of Genesis permit theistic evolution (in my view, they do not), Christians should be open to that possibility.  But they should be open to it on exegetical grounds, not on the grounds that not to affirm it may render them vulnerable to the charge of cultic belief.

Relish the Scandal

Biblical teaching is, after all, scandalous — and it always has been.  If man is a sinner, in rebellion against God, any divine teaching that rubs against his rebellion will not be popular.  This is nothing new.  In the ancient Near East, God’s command that the Jews practice strict heterosexual fidelity could hardly have been popular amid pagan tribes that valued indiscriminate sex.  In the Roman Empire, homosexuality was routine, even for married men.  New Testament sexual standards, therefore, were anything but trendy.  Again, Greco-Roman thought derided the body, and the doctrine of the resurrection was therefore deemed outrageous — even unthinkable.  From the very beginning, Christianity was deemed odd and quirky by the trendy culture-setters. Imagine Paul saying: “[I]f the data is overwhelmingly opposed to resurrection, to deny that reality will make us a cult…some odd group that is not really interacting with the world. And rightly so, because we are not using our gifts and trusting God’s Providence that brought us to this point of our awareness.”  The cultural perceptions of unbelievers has never been a criterion of authentic Faith. God is not interested in whether his revelation passes muster with intellectual rebels — and he never has been.

Biblical and Natural Revelation

Waltke is fully committed to serious interaction with God’s revelation in the world around us (“natural revelation”).  So am I.  God’s creation is no less revelation than the Bible and Jesus Christ himself.  In light of the cultural mandate in Genesis 1, Christians should be at the forefront of the scientific endeavor to investigate creation to glorify God and benefit humanity.  But scientific methodology is not neutral, as secular scientists usually suppose that it is, and all modes of God’s revelation are mutually conditioning — our knowledge of creation helps us to understand the Bible (if nothing else, we must know language in order to read it), and the Bible helps us interpret creation.  The Bible, in fact, is God’s fullest and clearest revelation to his church.  This is why we do not interpret Biblical revelation in light of natural revelation but vice versa.  Almost every attempt historically to interpret the Bible in light of nature concludes with man’s autonomous efforts to subvert Biblical teaching.  This was the precise course of 19th century higher Biblical criticism: in treating the Bible like any other book and reducing its production to the forces of mere human history, Christians surrendered the Faith.  The same thing happened a century before when Deism interpreted creation as excluding divine intervention: Jesus was reduced to a great man, and the Biblical miracles were deemed the apostles’ inventions. We must face squarely the reality that this treachery to the Faith was done under the guise of fidelity to creation.

Needless Anxiety

The principal reason for the priority of the Bible is that godly man lives by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).  God invites us to trust his bare word in spite of the “assured interpretation” of what we observe (Heb. 11).  The point is not that God arranges creation to deceive us (of course, he doesn’t), but he does arrange creation to test whether we will trust his word: think of Adam and Eve in the garden, of the old covenant Jews as well as Jesus in the wilderness, and of Job in his trials.  All were charged to trust the bare word of the living God in spite of how they may have interpreted the revelation surrounding them.  For this reason, if the Bible clearly teaches that God created the world in six ordinal days, any supposed empirical evidence to the contrary is wrong.  To secularists and to Christian latitudinarians, this tack is obscurantism.  To Bible-believing Christians, it is faith.  This faith does not retreat into the religious interior but boldly challenges every non-Biblical pretension to scientific fact in the external, “real” world.

Christians need not worry about what Helmut Theilike once termed “the baying hounds of the Enlightenment.” The alleged assured results of modern science change from generation to generation.  Recall that Newtonian physics has been seriously qualified by Einsteinian physics and that Einsteinian physics has in turn been greatly modified by quantum mechanics — all within the last 100 years. In contrast, God’s word is unchanged and unchanging: “The grass withers, the flower fades, [b]ut the word of our God stands forever….” (Is. 40:8).

If Christians resort to popping anxiety pills over the fact that trend-hungry scientistic worldlings might hint that devout Bible-believers who deny theistic evolution are a cult, they cower before scarecrows.  God’s unchanging word stands above and judges all human opinions, and we betray that word if we compromise it to avoid scoffing by sinners hostile to Biblical truth.

The truth, as Tertullian once wrote, need never blush.

Those Long-Lived Last Days

Posted on April 21, 2012

In recent times, we have heard a lot about “The Last Days.” A large number of non-mainline conservative Christians in this country (“evangelicals”) believe that we are living in the last few years (or even months, or days, or hours) before the “rapture” of the church, which will precede a seven-year tribulation period dominated by a single, sinister figure known as “The Antichrist,” followed by the Second Coming of Christ at which He will establish an earthly, visible, thousand-year reign in Jerusalem. This is classic or “scholastic” dispensational eschatology. Today we witness the queer coincidence of, on the one hand, the refusal of almost any leading conservative seminary in the country to defend classical dispensationalism with, on the other hand, the dramatic revival of dispensational eschatology in the form of the staggering series of best-selling novels in the Left Behind phenomenon. What is indefensible in the seminaries is indefatigable in the bookstores.

The notion that in the Bible “The Last Days” denotes the final few years or months before Christ’s Second Advent reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Biblical eschatology (the doctrine of last things). Proof that this view is mistaken appears in prominent statements like those of Peter in Acts 2, quoting Joel in describing the events of that first post-resurrection Pentecost as inaugurating “The Last Days,” during which “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (v. 17). In his first epistle, John writes (2:18), “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.” Jude writes similarly in v. 18 of his epistle. And the writer of Hebrews declares (1:1-2).

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds….

Whatever else these statements denote, they certainly indicate that their human authors recognized the days in which they lived as “The Last Days.”

Consistent dispensationalism is forced to argue in the light of passages like these that “The Last Days” did in fact begin at Pentecost but were “postponed” when God “withdrew” the offer of the kingdom to unbelieving Jews. There is not a shred of Biblical evidence to support this view, which is maintained only to conform to a preconceived theological system. The ministry of Paul himself was immersed in the kingdom of God (Ac. 20:25; 28:31; 1 Cor. 4:20; Col. 1:13; 4:11). Christ’s earthly kingdom and reign are not postponed until the Second Advent. They are events continuous with Jesus Christ’s resurrection (Acts 2:22-36). Christ is presently reigning at His Father’s right hand, and we are living in “The Last Days.”

The “Time Between”

“The Last Days,” in fact, refers to the entire inter-advental era – more specifically, to the period between Christ’s past bodily resurrection and His future bodily return. Why is it termed “The Last Days”? Because it is the last epoch or period of God’s redemptive work in the earth. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that when Christ returns, “then cometh the end, when He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power” (1 Cor. 15:27). That is, there is no period of redemptive history subsequent to Christ’s Second Coming. “The Last Days” is the consummation of redemptive history – when we bask and work within the victory of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and session.

We sometimes speak of about A.D. 34-90 or 100 as the “apostolic age”; but in a profound sense, the entire inter-advental era is the apostolic age. It is true that the apostles and their miracles and certain other works seemed unique to their lifetimes. For one thing, the requirements of an apostle cannot be met in the modern era (Ac. 1:21-22). Theirs was, in fact, a unique, unrepeatable era of redemptive history (Heb. 9:26-28).

We must never allow these facts, however, to deter us from recognition that the message of the apostolic era and its effects are designed to cover the entire inter-advental age. Thefirst days of “The Last Days” were the historical age of the apostles, whose authority and message and power persist into the present and will persist until Christ’s Second Advent. While in the chronology of history we are far removed from the first century, in the theology of history we united to that age. In salvation history, we are as close to the resurrection of Christ as the first-century apostles were, just as they were as close to the Second Advent as we are today. The first-century Christians did not know when the Lord would return any more than we do. What they did know – and what we should know – is that the great, decisive event of history is past, not future. The great battle has been won on the Cross and in the empty tomb. Salvation history in Christ is a unit, beginning with His birth and ending with His delivering His kingdom to His Father (1 Cor. 15:24). His atoning death and bodily resurrection stand at the center of this history and in fact constitute the gospel (1 Cor. 15: 1-8). All of this hangs together as a cluster of events in one overarching history.

The Eschatological Expectation

This readily explains many of the New Testament writers’ apparent expectation of the Second Coming within their lifetimes. While Christ Himself did not expressly teach this, and in fact implied otherwise (Mk. 13:32-37; Lk. 12:37-48), it points out that the apostles were dramatically aware, as many of today’s Christians are not, of the basic meaning of “The Last Days” in redemptive history. Their consciousness of the relative nearness of the Second Coming is not equivalent to today’s sort of dispensational date-setting, about which our Lord Himself warned His followers (Mt. 24:42; Ac. 1:6-8). They were not aware of the timing of Christ’s Second Coming; and, in fact, it seems that Christ Himself in His incarnate but pre-resurrection state was not aware of the exact time of His coming, having intentionally limited His divine omniscience (Mk. 13:24-32). The theologically liberal accusations that the New Testament writers taught that Jesus Christ would return in their own lifetimes (thus denying Biblical infallibility) is no less erroneous than is the notion by some conservatives that we must attribute most or all of such texts to the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70 in order to maintain the integrity of the Bible’s infallibility.

Both of these views constitute a critical misunderstanding of the nature of redemptive history. The New Testament writers were not attempting to set forth a “futurist” eschatology. Vos and Gaffin are correct to assert that for the New Testament writers, eschatology was a present reality. In the Person of Jesus Christ, the future had invaded the present, because the (recent) past had re-shaped all history from beginning to end.

Postmillennialism

This is a hefty support for postmillennialism, despite the fact that a lot of amillennialists hold it. The advancement of the kingdom of God that the Old Testament predicts and New Testament attests centers in the redemptive-historical work of Jesus Christ. This kingdom, which will overspread the earth and dominate every area of life and thought by means of the preaching and acceptance of the gospel, is a present reality, though it is worked out under God’s sovereign hand incrementally in history (Dan. 2; Mt. 13:31-33). This advancing kingdom is “The Last Days.” During this period, there is often great opposition to the gospel, but the gospel will win out. There will be great depravity (2 Tim. 3:1) but all enemies (except death) will be vanquished before Christ returns (1 Cor. 15:22-28). All of the Old Testament prophecies of a godly earth will be fulfilled as a result of the preaching of the gospel and the operation of the Spirit of God. “The Last Days” are not the days of anxiety over the decline of the kingdom and the apostasy of the church; they are the days of battle against an already defeated foe — a “mopping up” operation:

The decisive battle in a war may already have occurred in a relatively early stage of the war, and yet the war still continues. Although the decisive effect of that battle is perhaps not recognized by all, it nevertheless already means victory. But the war must still be carried on for an undefined time, until “Victory Day.” Precisely this is the situation of which the New Testament is conscious…. [T]he event on the cross, together with the resurrection which followed, was the already concluded decisive battle…. The chief point in question, therefore, is not the limitation that the imminent end will come within a generation, although this limitation is actually present in the New Testament. The theologically important point in the preaching of the nearness of the Kingdom of God is not this fact, but rather the implicit assertion that since the coming of Christ we already stand in a new period of time, and that therefore the end has drawn nearer (Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time).

The Second Coming is ever before the eyes of the apostles (just as it should ever be before our eyes), not because we expect to escape from the earth, but precisely because it signals the dramatic continuation of the earth’s Christianization secured definitively by the Lordship of Christ, His present rule from the heavens (Ac. 2:23-36).

A Future Alive and Well on Planet Earth

God is intensely interested in this earth as His creation, and He will not abandon it. The Bible, for example, does not teach that all Christians will live together with the Lord eternally in heaven. Rather, it states that the New Jerusalem will descend to the earth (a renovated earth [2 Pet. 3:10-13]) in which God will dwell with men forever (Rev. 21:1-3). In short, the entire inter-advental era constitutes “The Last Days,” God’s final period of redemptive accomplishment. However, it is not God’s final era of purifying sanctification for earth. This Christianization consisting of full sanctification will be God’s final, enduring work of purification after Christ returns. All enemies but one will be put down beforethe Second Coming. That final enemy to be subordinated is death (1 Cor. 15:26). Death – and the sin that fuels it – will survive within “The Last Days”; it will not be defeated with finality until Christ returns to initiate the final resurrection and the final judgment.

Christians aware of redemptive history, therefore, anticipate the Second Coming as a time when they will see their Lord face to face (Rev. 22:4), and when the work of worldwide Christianization will receive its final catapult into definitive earthly perfection. The Second Coming is the destination of redemptive history; and the desire for it burns within knowledgeable believers, not because they wish an escape from the world, but precisely because they wish a more Christian world. The Second Coming introduces a radical discontinuity into history, but it maintains a radical continuity in the Christianization that occurs within that history. In this sense, the millennium is the period of partial, progressive Christianization that ushers in the full, definitive Christianization of eternity.

“The Last Days” is the time of the great harvest, of Christ’s incrementally trampling down His enemies by the power of the gospel. The definitive victory on the Cross gives way to the final “mop-up operation” that will conclude at Christ’s Second Coming. “The Last Days” is a time of excitement and ecstasy, of trial and hardship, of temporary defeat and permanent victory, of the worldwide expansion of the kingdom of God. It is a time of the “already/not yet” – the already of Christ’s universal mediatorial reign within time and history, the “not yet” of remnants of the Second Adam and of sin that war against the incursion of the kingdom of God and the new age (Rom. 7).

We are called in “The Last Days” to faithfulness – and to victory in every area of thought, life, and society.

Select Bibliography

Berkouwer, G. C. The Return of Christ. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.

Boettner, Loraine. The Millennium. no loc.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1957.

Cullmann, Oscar. Christ and Time. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950.

—-. Salvation in History. New York and Evanston: Harper and Row, 1967.

Dawson, Christopher. “Religion and Life.” Enquiries into Religion and Culture. London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1933, 292-310.

Gaffin, Richard B., Jr., Resurrection and Redemption. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed (1978), 1987.

Kydd, Ronald A. N. Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1984.

Pentecost, Dwight J. Things to Come. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958, 463-466.

Ridderbos, Herman. Paul: An Outline of His Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975.

Vos, Geerhardus. The Pauline Eschatology. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed (1930), 1986.

Werner, Martin. The Formation of Christian Dogma. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.

Baptism, Covenant, Renunciation and Allegiance

Posted on April 21, 2012

Baptism in much of the modern church has degenerated into an effete and perfunctory ordinance, practiced more for traditional than for substantial reasons. Where it is not treated as divine white magic in sacerdotal churches, it is frequently in more evangelical churches treated in a mindless and mechanical way. The error is not merely the reductionistic denial of baptism as a sacrament among the evangelicals, but also the neglect of its essentially covenantal and moral character that penetrates the very heart of the meaning of Christianity.

In sharp contrast to this reductionistic view, the church historic perceived the great significance of baptism, including its oath-bound character. Of the practice of baptism in the early medieval church, Schaff observes:

In the act of baptism itself, the candidate first, with his face toward the west, renounced Satan and all his pomp and service; then, facing the east, he vowed fidelity to Christ, and confessed his faith in the triune God, either by rehearsing the Creed, or in answer to questions. Thereupon followed the threefold or the single immersion in the name of the triune God, with the following of the name of the candidate, the deacons and deaconesses assisting. [Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), p. 487]

Less significant than the baptismal modality and procedure is the signification: the initiate renounces Satan and life under his authority while affirming Christ and his. In the Reformed view later developed, this renunciation and affirmation were seen in a covenantal context. As Bannerman notes of the two sacraments:

They are federal [covenantal] acts,-seals and vouchers of the covenant between God and the believer. They presuppose and imply a covenant transaction between the man who partakes of them and God; and they are the attestations to and confirmations of that transaction, pledging God by a visible act to fulfill His share of the covenant, and engaging the individual by the same visible act to perform his part in it. [James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (Edmonton, Canada: Still Waters {1869}, 1991), 12]

In baptism, as in communion, the adult initiate pledges himself (and, if applicable, his children) to the Christian Faith. This pledge, however, includes the renunciation of Satan and his kingdom. Thus St. Paul states in 1 Cor. 10:21, “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakes of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.”

The neglect of the covenantal signification of the sacraments quite naturally issues from a neglect of the necessity of renouncing the world and pledging oneself to Christ in the modern church. Much of the modern church is interested in conforming to the temper of the times, not in following Christ and his infallible word when that tack becomes unpopular. For example, major denomination are now ordaining women elders and some even homosexuals, thereby jettisoning clear Biblical teaching (1 Tim. 2:12) as well as the position of the undivided church catholic until late this century. Only the most naive and prejudiced would deny that the pressures of a feminized modernity and homosexualized culture motivated this erroneous decision. As the late Francis Schaeffer stated: accommodation leads to accommodation leads to accommodation.

Conversely, the oath taken at Christian baptism includes the intent to follow Christ and his inscripturated word, not the temper of the times. Moreover, it entails a renunciation of all allegiance to Satan and his hosts and kingdom-a denial of self-will, the determination to be one’s own god, and the worship of any but God. It equally entails a repudiation of all that the word of God prohibits. A chief dimension of the signification of baptism is that we cannot make our own rules. We are bound by the terms of the new covenant (Heb. 8:10). We are under the command of Another, the Captain of our salvation (Heb. 2:10).

The Christian commitment is in essence covenantal allegiance (2 Cor. 3:6-4: 7). It is not good-feeling religion bolstered by pastoral and musical entertainment every Sunday. It is not weepy religious sentiment generated by Christian romance novels. It is not laughing bouts stimulated by a “Holy-Ghost bartender.” It is not emotional hot flashes experienced in an Arminian altar call. Christian commitment is covenantal allegiance to the King.

To claim that saving faith may not persevere and that one who does not persevere in faith may nonetheless be saved is a travesty  [see Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free! (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 63, 69, 107, 11, passim]. This is the view of the opponents of the so-called “lordship salvation,” which is, after all, nothing more than Christian orthodoxy. Justification is appropriated exclusively by faith apart from any merit or works, but God justifies none whom he sanctifies. As the Puritans stated, “Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone.”

To love God with all one’s heart, soul, and might is to act on a pledged allegiance to the covenantal stipulations of the King (Dt. 6:1-9). We cannot sever obedience from devotion any more than we can works from faith (Jas. 2:14-26). The individual with white-hot devotion to God is the one who has pledged his allegiance to the King and who manifests that allegiance in his conformity to the inscripturated law-word of God.

Do you manifest this allegiance in your life?

Salvation and Works

Posted on April 21, 2012

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God; Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).

INTRODUCTION

One should expect that in a matter as crucial as personal salvation, Satan will work diligently and subtly to introduce confusion and error into the thinking not only of the unconverted but also of professed Christians. An almost infallible litmus test of the validity of a religion is its teaching with respect to individual salvation. If that teaching reflects and takes into account the entire range of Scriptural data it may be judged valid; if it distorts the Scriptural message of salvation, on the other hand, it must be rejected, no matter how its teaching on other doctrines and practices may conform to the Scriptural message.

One of the classic texts of Scripture pertaining to the doctrine of salvation is Ephesians 2:8-10, inasmuch as it clearly sets forth the proper relationship between salvation and good works. It is surely not the only Scripture describing this relationship, but it is one of the most succinct and clearest.

The purpose of this essay is to examine briefly the teaching of Eph. 2:8-10 with regard to the relationship between salvation and works and refute two chief heresies arising from a misunderstanding of that relationship.

GOOD WORKS CANNOT MERIT SALVATION

In 2:1-7 Paul has discussed the sinful state and actions of the Ephesians previous to their regeneration, and has pointed out that “God who is rich in mercy,…when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)” (vv. 4,5); in vv. 6,7 he reveals the ultimate aim of regeneration: our heavenly abode with Christ that will demonstrate his incomparable grace. He then states that it is by grace that we are saved through the instrument of faith, “and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” Exegetes dispute the antecedent of “it” in the last expression. Does “it” refer to “faith,” thus teaching that faith itself is a gift of God; or does “it” refer to the entire clause “by grace are ye saved through faith”? My opinion is that “faith” is the antecedent of “it,” and that faith is in fact specifically stated to be “a gift of God.” Frankly, however, it makes little practical difference if the word it refers to the entire clause, because the meaning is essentially the same: salvation is a gift of God, and faith is an aspect of salvation. On the basis of this statement concerning grace, Paul remarks, “Not of works, lest any man should boast.” We may infer from v. 9 that insofar as securing salvation is concerned, grace and works are antithetical (see, in addition, Rom. 11:6). The whole concept of grace excludes human works as a source of merit for salvation. This teaching refutes the heresies of Roman Catholicism; Pelagianism; the rationalistic school within Arminianism; and, obviously, most cults. The Bible’s teaching is that it is not on account of any of our own good works that salvation can be obtained. From a practical standpoint, the good-works heresy is so deadly because it diminishes the glory of God and draws attention to human works in which one may “boast.” But the most objectionable feature of that heresy is that it attacks the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work in his life and particularly on the cross (see Heb. 9). Christ’s active and passive obedience on our behalf eliminates any need for human action to pacify God’s wrath; and, in fact, any attempts to merit God’s salvific favor dilute the grace, kindness, love, and mercy of God (Titus 3:4,5). Paul in Philippians 3:1-9 unequivocally discloses the truth that one’s own righteousness (and “righteousness” implies good works since Paul specifically mentions his Pharisaic works in this passage) is equated with “dung,” and consequently cannot in any way contribute to one’s salvation.

Religious activities, including penance, baptism, charity, sacraments, church attendance, and so forth may have special value but not within the sphere of securing salvation.

GOD THE WORKMAN

Immediately after stating salvation cannot be secured by good works, Paul declares, “for we are [God’s] workmanship,” implying that the reason it is unnecessary for humanity to work in order to obtain salvation is that God himself has performed the work; and that concept is amply supported by Paul’s very theme in the book of Ephesians and by the rest of Scripture. In Eph. 1 he catalogs in vv. 1-12 numerous benefits our salvation provided by Christ confers on us, but not once does he indicate man has any role in obtaining these benefits: blessed with spiritual blessings, elected, predestinated, accepted in the beloved, redeemed, forgiven, united with Christ, etc. Verse 12 reveals “belief” and “trust” are instruments in securing those benefits, but they can never serve as the ground of our salvation, which elsewhere is said to be Christ’s death for us (see 1 Pet. 3:18).

Because God through his Son Jesus Christ has performed and completed all the work necessary to our salvation, it is unnecessary for us to perform any further work; and the performance of any such work in order to merit salvation is an affront to God.

SAVED “UNTO GOOD WORKS”

It is precisely here-with the statement “created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them”-that we confront the teaching that refutes a second heresy, one held by many supposed Bible-believing people. They are fully aware of the Scriptural teaching that salvation cannot be merited by mankind. They eschew-as God does-any endeavor by mankind to elicit God’s salvific favor by performing good works. Some of them have so legitimately opposed the teaching that good works of humanity can somehow merit salvation that they have reached the unscriptural conclusion that good works have no relationship to salvation whatsoever. They believe, for example, that it is possible for a genuine Christian to live a lifetime without conforming himself to the teaching of Scripture or performing good works. That idea, however, is almost as heretical as the good-works-for-salvation teaching of Roman Catholics and cultists. For 2:10 states that the very reason we were chosen to be regenerated was to perform good works which God ordained beforehand (that is, before our salvation) that we should walk in them. One aspect of God’s aim in saving us is the practice of good works. The New Testament is thus filled with exhortations to Christians to perform good works; consequently, if we do not perform those good works we are not fulfilling the purpose of God’s saving us in the first place.

Those Bible-believers who embrace this heresy may cautiously agree with my statements to this point. Notwithstanding, they adamantly oppose the Scriptural implication flowing from the specific teaching of this verse, namely, that one who does not perform good works is not, in fact, a genuine believer. But both the logic and the Scripture on this point are irresistible. If our ultimate salvation and destiny are certain because of God’s pre-mundane electing and predestinating acts, our performance of good works are certain because of God’s previous ordination “that we should walk in them.” Admittedly, in some cases the term ordain can be understood as referring to a desirable rather than actual decree (for example, 1 Cor. 9:14), but “ordained” as used in the sense of 2:10 can mean nothing other than God’s firm determination, by virtue of the teaching of other Scriptures. Hebrews 12:14 states that without holiness “no man shall see the Lord.” (It is vain to argue that this holiness refers to the judicial holiness or righteousness imputed to us by God on account of Christ’s work, for in this passage the author of Hebrews has been speaking clearly of personal godliness.) Col. 1:21-23 indicates that our salvation and, specifically, our reconciliation, are contingent on our continuing “in the faith grounded and settled,” and not “mov[ing] away from the hope of the gospel.” This verse is certainly not to be understood in the Arminian sense: i.e., it is not stating that those who move away from the hope of the gospel somehow forfeit their salvation. It is simply indicating they were never genuinely reconciled in the first place, and their lack of good works is only an evidence of lack of salvation. And who will attempt to argue against the invincible logic of James 2 that faith cannot save one who does not perform good works (v. 14), and that faith apart from works is “dead,” that is, non-existent (v. 17) ?

Some do, however, resist the teaching that good works are an essential corollary of salvation. They argue, for example, that Lot was a righteous man, despite the fact that he never performed good works. He seems to be the only Scriptural example they can produce to support their view that salvation does not lead inevitably to good works. Perhaps they have not taken into account that God “winked at” the ignorance of many under the Old Testament dispensation (Ac. 17:30), or that Lot did in fact evidence a small degree of holiness when finally urged by the message and actions of his angelic visitors, or that he was distressed by the ungodliness of Sodom (2 Pet. 2:7). But they cannot provide any post-ascension examples of Christians who refused to practice good works, for the New Testament record everywhere assumes God’s children will unavoidably perform good works.

Some argue that the statement of v. 10, “before ordained” does not guarantee the performance of good works by those who are converted. Zane Hodges, for example, states, “sometimes this text is misunderstood. Sometimes it is read as though it meant that the believer will most certainly walk in the good works God has prepared for him. But Paul does not say that at all.” Rather, Hodges contends, Paul is revealing “God’s purpose for us. God wants us to walk in good works. Whether we do so or not depends on the many biblical factors which are relevant to spiritual development.” Hodges compares the remark in John 3:17, “that the world through [Christ] might be saved” to that of Ephesians 2, “that we should walk in them [good works],” [Hodges, Absolutely Free (Dallas: Redencion Viva, 1989) p. 73.]. It is true that this ordination, or preparation beforehand, unto good works does not of itself indicate the performance of those good works as guaranteed. But when linked to a preceding expression “created in Christ Jesus unto good works,” it does indeed indicate that the fulfillment of those good works is inevitable. The following is the force of Paul’s logic: We were created in Christ for the very purpose of performing good works, and those works are designed for us beforehand to fulfill.

Nonetheless, the most compelling argument that the remarks in v. 10 teach that salvation guarantees good works is the entire context of Paul’s statement. His entire logic concerning salvation in Ephesians 2 portrays God as active and man as passive. Note “hath he quickened,” “raised us up,” “made nigh,” “he might reconcile,” “came and preached,” etc. In other words, the performance of good works mentioned in v. 10 is just as much guaranteed as our “sit[ting] together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” in v. 6.

Opponents of the view of this paper charge that the performance of good works cannot be made the litmus test of true belief because Christians may make an inaccurate judgment about another professed Christian during a time of specific weakness in the latter’s life, or because human limitation in general renders us incapable of such accurate judgment. Yet those who understand the Scriptural teaching concerning the inevitability of good works in a Christian’s life do not deny that we may be mistaken in our evaluation of the lives of others, or even that it is possible for us to become Pharisaic and judgmental. Our assertion is not that we will always be able to decide infallibly on the basis of an individual’s works if he is a genuine believer, but rather that true believers inevitably perform good works. The fact that we may be mistaken (even frequently) about another’s spiritual condition is no refutation of the Scriptural teaching that good works flow necessarily from a saved life. The fact that we may incorrectly judge has no bearing on the teaching of Scripture.

CONCLUSION

Let’s review. (1) Salvation cannot be secured by any human merit, including the performance of any good works. (2) The reason it is unnecessary to perform good works in order to secure salvation is that God himself has through the work of Christ performed all the work necessary. (3) One of the very reasons God saved us is so we would perform good works, and if we do not perform good works we are only indicating we are not truly converted.

Jesus, Not Politics, Saves

Posted on April 21, 2012

In reading the current fracas over at American Vision (and I want to mention here that I have the highest personal regard for Gary DeMar), I was reminded again of a travesty I observed frequently while a part of the Theonomy movement (with which I no longer identify): the apparent subordination of Christianity to politics, specifically libertarian politics.  This is the first time I’d ever encountered such misguided thinking.  I’d always been politically conservative, not because there was any inherent value in conservatism, but because conservatism (I mean by this classical liberalism, with its stress on individual liberty that libertarians most value) was more in harmony with the Faith and the Bible than its alternatives.  I was only interested in politics to the extent that the Bible and Faith shape one’s political views (Ayn Rand would not have approved).

Of course, I believe that the Bible addresses, either explicitly or implicitly, many political and cultural issues, and that’s why I’m devoting a big part of my life to Christian cultural reclamation.  David Bahnsen and I, for instance, will be hosting on April 28 in Orange County a conference on The Roots of the Financial Crisis, and my talk is “The Theological Roots of the Financial Crisis.” I am passionate about the application of the Faith in culture, including in politics; but politics may never become the proverbial tail that wags the Christian dog.

Conversely, it appeared — and appears — to me that many professed theonomists are committed libertarians who are seeking in Christianity a religious sanction for their libertarianism. I believe this because they seem quite willing (at times) to sacrifice Biblical views (like God’s moral law) when they conflict with libertarian tenets (like freedom for any action that doesn’t harm others).  For this reason, some of them are eager to make common cause with secular libertarians, who often despise Jesus Christ and the Bible and who support clear violations of God’s moral law like same-sex marriage and other extramarital consensual sexuality, which God abominates (Heb. 13:4).  These Christian politicos hate the state, and therefore make common cause with libertines.  They are so afraid of Stalin that they leap into bed with the Marquis de Sade. They don’t seem to understand that individual liberty minus Biblical Christianity equals libertinism, against which God promises judgment (Gal. 6:8).

If there is to be a libertarianism at all, it must be an explicitly Christian libertarianism.  I’m sure that I didn’t invent that moniker, and if I knew where I first heard it, I’d give due credit, but people seem to think I’m the modern source of it.  In any case, we are Christians first, not libertarians (or anything else) first.  If that Bible-shaped Faith leads to generally libertarian conclusions, well and good.  But if the Bible taught state socialism, I’d be socialist (it emphatically does not, and so I am not). The issue is Jesus Christ and the Faith and the Bible, not politics as such.

The Christian stake in politics is, first — always first — to disciple all nations (Mt. 28:18–20) in the Gospel of Christ, the message that his death on the Cross (1 Pet. 3:18) and his victorious resurrection (Rom. 4:25) save all who believe in and submit to him (Rom. 10:13).  As individuals trust and submit, they reorder their lives in accord with his Word (Phil. 2:12–13).  We pray that the state stays out of the way so that we can live a peaceful life under Jesus Christ’s authority (1 Tim. 2:1–2). In democracies we employ our vote and discourse to bring all of life, including politics, steadily under God’s righteous standards (1 Pet. 2:16).  That includes, among other factors, maximum individual liberty under God’s law (this is how I defined “Christian libertarianism” in my article 15 years ago).  Individual liberty is not a stand-alone virtue.  It is a virtue only as it’s subordinated to Jesus’ gospel and God’s law.  Liberty without God is vice, and it leads to enslavement (Rom. 6:16).  To repeat: individual liberty minus Biblical Christianity equals libertinism.  We must be Christians, and we should be Christian libertarians, but we cannot be libertarians who also happen to be Christians.

I warned recently about political salvation, or messianic politics, which is generally the province of liberals but can ensnare conservatives as well.  Let’s never assume that if we just got rid of an onerous state and got back to unfettered liberty for any action that doesn’t harm anybody else, we’d have a really great society.  We wouldn’t.  Man needs salvation from sin, the greatest slavery of all (2 Tim. 2:26).  Only Jesus Christ provides this salvation.  And only the gospel furnishes true freedom (Jn. 8:36).

Jesus saves.  Politics doesn’t.

The Accommodation Junkies

Posted on April 19, 2012

It does seem to me that evangelical leaders, and every evangelical Christian, have a very special responsibility not to just go along with the “blue-jean syndrome” of not noticing that their attempts to be “with it” so often take the same forms as those who deny the existence or holiness of the living God.

Accommodation leads to accommodation — which leads to accommodation…

Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster

That few Christians were surprised when leading Emergent evangelical Brian McLaren announced  his decision to participate in the Islamic month of Ramadan testifies to the pitiable state into which evangelicalism has fallen.  What is evangelicalism?  Historically the language is rooted in the Protestant (notably Lutheran) Reformation, though it was also used by certain pre-Reformation Roman Catholics to designate those who wished to return to a more Bible-centered Faith.  On the Protestant side, evangelicalism has traditionally denoted Christians who believe in (1) an individual, born-again experience by grace through faith in Jesus Christ as opposed to a church-centered salvation and in (2) the authority of the Bible as opposed to competing church traditions.  Evangelicals affirm the evangel, the good news that salvation is found exclusively in Jesus, not the church, and attested in the infallible Word of God, the Bible, which judges all things.  Inherent in historic evangelicalism is a willingness to draw sharp lines: some people are evangelical, and some are not; some views are compatible with evangelicalism, and some are not.  To profess Christianity is not on that account alone to be considered evangelical.

Over the last three decades, evangelical identity, not merely emphasis, has changed.  Today there are liberal evangelicals, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox evangelicals, homosexual evangelicals, pro-abortion evangelicals, and soon, perhaps, trans-gendered evangelicals.  The distinctive adjectives so drastically modify the term “evangelical” that in most cases they modify it right out of its original meaning (like “married bachelors” or “dry water”).

The prime driver behind this verbal dilution is accommodation to the surrounding secular culture.  The specific form of accommodation is usually distaste for differences based on moral (or theological) judgments.  “Celebrate diversity” may be the slogan of the era in the West, but this celebration does not seem to include moral judgments, which are the anathema of our postmodern age — and, in fact, the only surviving acceptable moral judgment.  No one is immoral except people who say that other people are immoral.  That includes historic evangelicals, who make moral judgments based on the Bible.  This form of diversity is unforgivable in a culture that “celebrates diversity.”

Give Me That Old-Time Modernism

Lust for accommodation in the form of dislike of sharp differences, however, is not a distinctively postmodern phenomenon.  In their standard work Protestant Christianity Interpreted Through Its Development (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954), John Dillenberger and Claude Welch list as one of the “formative principles of liberalism” “[e]mphasis upon the principle of continuity (i.e., concern for similarity and likeness rather than difference and opposition)” (213, emphasis in original).

The attempt to find syntheses between two raggedly irreconcilable viewpoints or practices is a mark of Protestant liberalism (sometimes called “modernism”), not of historic evangelicalism.  This “synthesis fixation” was part and parcel of the wide cultural acceptance of organic views of human existence and history in the 19th century, during which liberalism emerged.  The folk version of this “synthesis fixation” is Hegel’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis sequence: radical differences meet one another, combine, and are thereby transformed.  The net effect of a wide cultural acceptance of this outlook is relativism of the most intense sort: what today seems morally contradictory or objectionable is simply the orthodoxy of tomorrow when creatively combined with its present antithesis.   Profligate homosexuality (for example) when synthesized with its opposition becomes a new, thoughtful, enlightened view of homosexuality (“committed homosexual relationships”). History is the matrix within which opposites are overcome, including irreconcilable religions.  For this reason, liberalism, Dillenberger and Welch note, “emphasized the common features of Christianity and non-Christian religions” (214).  Like Islam.

This is not, to put it mildly, the spirit of the great figures of the Bible.  Elijah did not seek accommodation with the prophets of Baal.  Jesus did not labor for accommodation with the Pharisees.  Paul did not work to accommodate the Judaizers.  John did not accommodate the Docetic heretics.  The men of God whose holy exploits appear in the Bible worked to sharpen distinctions between good and evil — not to blur or erase those distinctions.  They were not interested in accommodation with false religion; they were interested in fidelity to God.

This zeal does not characterize many modern evangelicals, who, Harold O. J. Brown once ironically observed, are often so far behind the cultural pace-setters that they seem to be spearheading an entirely new movement when, in fact, they are simply very late to the party (“True and False Liberation in the Light of Scripture,” Perspectives on Evangelical Theology, eds. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Stanley N. Gundry [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979], 135). Evangelicals get around to riding the trendy wave just about the time that wave is crashing ashore and another is forming.  Their lust for accommodation ends up being an embarrassing form of cultural catch-up.  In terms of “concern for similarity and likeness rather than difference and opposition,” the accommodation junkies are finally catching up to 19th century liberalism.

In the form of accommodation championed by Brian McLaren and others like him, therefore, we are not really observing evangelicalism at all but rather a revival of “old-time modernism” — specifically the lust for synthesis at all costs, the overcoming of religious differences by fiat and by compromise.  The fact that some religions and doctrines are mutually irreconcilable is not a major plank in the liberal calculation, nor is it in today’s evangelical calculation, despite the fact that Elijah, Jesus, Paul and John took this mutually irreconcilability for granted.

Let us recall that “old-time modernism” did not appear ex nihilo, but sprang as a reaction to the perceived rigidities of evangelical orthodoxy.  That’s how liberalism got here in the first place.

In many ways, in the “Emergent Movement,” we are witnesses to the replay of the Liberal-Fundamentalist divide of the early 20th century, adapted, however, to the postmodern condition.  The great centers of evangelicalism infested with the “synthesis fixation,” committed at all costs to avoiding sharp lines of distinction between the church and the world, between false religion and true religion, and between Christ and Anti-Christ, will likely split.

The lesson from history: if we refuse to split from false religion outside the church, we will eventually be forced to confront the split between true and false religion within the church.

Or simply let the church gradually surrender to apostasy.

After all, “Accommodation leads to accommodation — which leads to accommodation….”

The Bibliological Burden of N. T. Wright

Posted on April 19, 2012

The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture

N. T. Wright

New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005

146 pages, cloth, $19.95 US

N. T. Wright is arguably the most popular New Testament scholar in the English-speaking world today.  His manner is winsome, his writing is incisive, his speech is engaging, and his scholarship is impressive.   He churns out both scholarly and popular volumes more quickly than most folks can read them, and he has become a darling of many conservatives for his stalwart defense of the integrity of the historic Jesus and the Biblical documents.  In the wake of over 100 years of anti-supernaturalistic bias within mainstream New Testament scholarship, Tom Wright has emerged as a champion for many conservatives who still take the orthodox view of the Bible seriously.

But not all conservatives.   His revisionary definition of justification, for example, has not won him supporters among those orthodox Reformed committed to sixteenth-century structures of soteriology, and The Last Word will only confirm the suspicions of those critics who already perceive Wright as a mediating theologian lacking firm evangelical convictions.   Those willing to evaluate Wright on his own terms may arrive at a more positive, if still critical, assessment.

We might find it puzzling that a scholar who has devoted so many thousands of pages to explicating the message of the Bible would commit only 146 pages to his bibliology — or at least the only one he’s written to date.   This puzzlement evaporates, however, when we come to grasp Wright’s conception of the role of the Bible in the church and the Faith.   It can be boiled down to this critical distinction: whereas earlier evangelicals saw the Bible as explicating the contours of the Christian Faith, Wright sees the Bible as itself an aspect of that larger Faith — the Faith is a drama, and the Bible is a component of that drama.   Earlier evangelicals conceived of the Bible as the epistemic fountainhead of the Faith, while Wright suggests it is a pivotal tributary of the larger Christian drama — The Big Story, we might call it.   The authority of the Bible must be understood in terms of that larger Christian drama and does not itself generate the contours of the story (30).

The Crisis of Postmodernity

Wright is aware that his countermove represents a sharp break in the traditional understanding of the Bible’s authority, and he invites his readers to leave behind “one or another well-established point[s] of view” and “be prepared to do business with the [contemporary] serious debate at its cutting edges” (22).   Given his penchant for identifying faith with story, Wright not surprisingly situates this debate within the literary currents surrounding postmodernism.   As we will note more fully below, he joins the contemporary chorus in debunking modernism, particularly as it has viewed the Bible.   Wright recognizes in the Enlightenment the seeds of this modern(istic) approach, according to which truth is understood as scientifically quantifiable facts.   By contrast, the Bible as story, according to Wright, does not conform to this standard and therefore in the modernistic paradigm (both fundamentalist or liberal) the Bible was denuded of all truth and functional authority.   In the recent postmodern approach, Wright finds not so much an ally of Biblical authority as ways of reading the Bible (feminism and post-colonialism, for example) to which a responsible view of Biblical authority must be sensitive.   Wright’s tract is an attempt to refine and even redefine Biblical authority in terms of the present cultural climate but with an eye toward what he believes is the Bible’s own approach to its authority.

What the Bible Is Not

Wright is intent initially to communicate what the Bible is not.   First, it is not a revelatory authority in the sense understood by conservatives the last 300 years, an authority exercised as a “final court of appeal,” a “commanding officer,” or a “list of rules” (28).   The Bible reflects, rather, the Hebraic sense of authority, an authority submerged in and subordinate to mission.   The authority manifests itself in the message and is not anterior to the message.   This thesis of Wright’s is not materially different from that of earlier theologians like Karl Barth, Herman Ridderbos, and G. K. Berkhower, who refused to see Scripture as a sort of formal authority to which its redemptive message is attached.   Rather, the message — salvation by grace in Jesus — is the authority.   It is not clear, however, that traditional evangelicals will be persuaded by Wright’s aversion to a definition of authority that excludes the Bible as a source of appeal to settle disputes.

Second, and arising from the first negation, the Bible is not merely revelation (30-32).   The notion of the Bible as exclusively divine self-communication springs from an Enlightenment propensity to see God as the absentee landlord who happens to launch messages to the terrestrial outpost.   Alternatively, the Christian idea is that God is constantly laboring with and in His creation for His glory and purposes.   God, to use Wright’s language, “transforms” His self-revelation as it enters His “mission to the world”  (31-32).   This highly “dynamic” view of revelation will raise the eyebrows — and ire — of many conservatives, but Wright’s proposal can at least be credited with taking seriously the incarnational character of revelation.   Wright seems to be arguing that revelation cannot be mediated except in the actual mission of the church and may, in fact, be adjusted by that mission.    In this suggestion Wright tends to mitigate the objective character of revelation, but he capitalizes a view of revelation wedded inescapably to the ongoing message and mission of the church (the Gospel).

Third, the Bible is not merely a devotional manual (32-34).   While not denying this role for the Bible, Wright is worried that “hearing God speak in Scripture” may just be a form of self-deceit that leads — and his in fact led — to dangerous consequences for the church.   For this reason, we must admit that God speaks in both creation and (preeminently) in Jesus Christ.   He wants to avoid reducing authority to speech.   Rather, the issue is speech-acts: God speaks in His activity in history (and not just in redemptive history).   This move to merge as sources of authority the speech of Scripture with the activity of Providence will disappoint Christians who look to the Bible as a uniquely authoritative divine speech.

Positively, Wright posits a three-pronged model of Biblical authority (33-34): (1) God speaks in Scripture; (2) Scripture transforms our minds and thus transforms us; and (3) Scripture energizes us for mission to transform the world by the Gospel.

Wright is weary of the “Battle for the Bible” waged by (mostly) American evangelicals in the 70s and 80s, the battle instantiated (for example) in the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.   For one thing, he is convinced that we cannot situate the Bible as a stand-alone authority, even a divinely given stand-alone authority (xi, 23-25).   He is at pains to identify “Authority of Scripture” as shorthand for “God’s authority exercised through Scripture”  and argues that “God’s ‘word’ [is] not a synonym for the written scriptures but . . . a strange personal presence, creating, judging, healing, recreating” (38).   At first blush this distinction is not especially controversial, but Wright inquires that since the Bible is mostly a story, not a “compendium of true doctrines” (though he acknowledges that the Bible contains those doctrines) how can it be authoritative?   How do stories exercise authority?   Wright initially furnishes the example of the secretary of the cycling club who cannot get members’ attention about safety precautions by straight prose and who therefore posts on the bulletin board a tragic story of a cyclist who suffered for not obeying those safety rules.   Since the Bible narrates an overarching story, Wright suggests, we must infer its authority from that narrative structure and not impose some other sort of structure on it to ascertain how it is authoritative (26-28).   Moreover, Biblical authority takes its place in metanarrative (25-26) in which it participates and is not an epistemic foundation for “theological method” to which conservatives have become accustomed. The story, not the Scripture, is paramount.   And if the story, not the Scripture, is paramount, the story gets to shape the Scripture.   Wright’s book explains how the story does this.

Interestingly, however, by drawing attention to this difficulty of grasping how story can be authoritative while advising that the Bible is not essentially a set of received doctrines, Wright tacitly acknowledges that such a “compendium of true doctrines” can be more readily grasped as authoritative than a story can.   Perhaps this is why much of the historic church (rightly or wrongly) has conceived of Biblical authority in the terms Wright now revises.  He really is offering a new view of Biblical authority (or, Wright would likely counter, a revival of a very, very old view of Biblical authority — that of the Bible itself), and the book’s subtitle is entirely appropriate: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture.

But What’s the Story?

Wright is unhappy with a construction of Biblical authority by which one settles an argument with the assertion, “The Bible says,” or even “The Bible read in context says” (21).   He shrewdly observes that the issue of Biblical authority almost always emerges amid eras of theological protest — when the Bible is under attack (from “the outside”).   The view of Biblical authority rising in such eras, therefore, is not as such suitable to settle how Scripture actually functions as an authority for God’s people (27).   As a narrationalizing champion, Wright counters with the idea of the Bible as a story — not just a canon replete with stories (which it surely is), but as itself a story, within The Big (Christian) Story.

But what is The Big Story?   There’s the rub.   Wright delimits it as the Kingdom of God spreading in the earth as a result of the work of Jesus.   Evil has come into God’s good world, and God has sent Jesus to overcome that evil (the Christus Victor theme lurks here [35-37]).   Jesus brings everything “back to rights.”   The Bible, targeting Israel as the covenant people in the Old Testament and the multinational church in the New Testament, narrates this story (28-34). The Bible is the Jesus-Story.

Jesus and the Authority of Scripture

Unlike older views of Jesus and Biblical authority, Wright is not especially interested in Jesus’ “views” of the Old Testament.   Rather, in dramatic fashion, he insists that Jesus occupies in the New Testament era the role that the Old Testament did for Israel (42-46): Jesus Himself is the storyline of the Bible.   For this reason, one may not abstract Jesus’ assessment of the authority of the Old Testament from His kingdom ministry.   To repeat: Scripture is subordinate to the Story.

Authority of Scripture in History

Wright argues that the apostles carried on from their Lord this view of Biblical authority (48-54).   It was not an authority in general but the authority of a message: the story of Jesus Who died for our sins and rose again to redeem the world in a most comprehensive way.   This is the apostolic meaning of the “word” of God (48).   It is not a divine word spoken as such to man, but a word conveying the Gospel.   The Gospel (alone) is the “word” of God.   In participating in that Story the apostles saw themselves as aspects of the narration of that word.

Likewise, the sub-apostolic church saw itself in continuity with (a subsequent “act” in) the Story.   Its vision of the Old Testament furnishes, according to Wright, a key to the relationship between Old and New Testaments.   They conceived of the Old as an earlier act in the play, an act necessary but now superceded by another act (Jesus’ redemptive activity in history).   The authority of the Old Testament, like that of the New, resided in it message; and the subsequent act of the message is not repeated (just as Christ’s redemptive ministry constituting the New Testament act is not repeated in our act of redemptive history today).   Imbibing the Story transforms the church for its mission in the world; this is how the Bible is authoritative (59).

While the sub-apostolic church generally preserved the narrational view of Biblical authority, over time the church lost the “Israel-dimension” of the Bible and of itself and “the notion of scriptural authority became detached from its narrative context” (64).   Coordinate with this loss was the adoption of the allegorical method of interpretation, which was necessary to compensate for the loss.   If the narrative method is abandoned, a new method of continuity must be enlisted.   The allegorical method saw the Bible as a kind of codebook held together by hidden meanings.   This method (extending into the medieval era) maintained the unity of the Bible but at the expense of missing its chief message, the Story.

By contrast, the Reformers (rightly) jettisoned much of the allegorical sense(s) and insisted on the literal sense (73-77) — literal here meaning not anti-metaphorical, but rather what the original writer intended.   If he intended a metaphorical sense, that would be the “literal” sense.   Wright applauds this move, but he complains that the Reformers, in meeting the Roman Catholic challenge of an authoritative church, actually undercut Biblical authority by positing the Scriptures as “the place where you could go to find an authoritative ruling” (75).   The Scriptures, per Wright, are not a court of appeal but a message in narrative form.

If the Reformation undercut Biblical authority, the Enlightenment decimated it (82-96).   While the Enlightenment rightly wanted to shear the allegorical method and cut a swath back to the writers’ original meaning, in time it assumed it could operate with a “neutral, scientific” (= rationalistic) approach that eroded the core of Biblical faith (its supernaturalism, its dogma, and its view of the Bible itself — the effect of higher historical criticism).   Enlightenment soon redefined sin as ignorance and thus salvation as knowledge (unaided human reason).   Religion and knowledge were soon sequestered from one another — or, rather, religion was thought to embody a special form of knowledge, not amenable to reason.   Christianity and other religions were “kicked upstairs,” out of the realm of this world and thought to inhabit only the world of belief, not knowledge, and perhaps even of superstition.   In this latter move many Christians unwittingly collaborated, “protecting” the Bible from the acid of Enlightenment historical criticism at the cost of blunting the Bible’s “global, cosmic and justice-laden message and treat[ing] it only as the instrument of personal piety and the source of true doctrine about personal salvation” (89).

Postmodernism savaged Enlightenment’s pretensions of neutrality and objectivity by arguing that these views were simply power plays under the guise of scientific activity.   The Bible itself was seen as a collection of misogynic, imperialistic, racist writings under the pretense of the word of God.   Wright does not question this bias in all Biblical texts, but he contests that a “critical realist” reading (like his own) takes account of the contributions of postmodernism without surrendering to a nihilism and skepticism about the text.   Neither modernism nor postmodernism will rescue Biblical authority.

“How to Get Back on Track”

This heading is title of the book’s last chapter.   He has earlier written that the Bible is authoritative as Story, but how specifically is this Story authoritative?   Wright gets around to answering this question on page 115, and his proposal is surprisingly existential.   The Bible (within the Big Story) forms the mind of the church and steels us to “implement the resurrection” unto the Final Day.   In short, as we read the Bible, it changes us within the context of the church, an aspect of the Story.   That Story is a five-act model consisting of creation, “fall,” Israel, Jesus, and the church.   The first four acts are recorded in the Bible.   The last act we ourselves play out on the basis of the previous four, but especially the fourth, which maintains narrational unity but offers a decisive break with the previous one (Israel).   This is why as we read Paul’s words to (for example) the churches in Ephesus and Corinth, we read them as though they were directed to us; we cannot say this of the Old Testament (125).   Reading the fourth act, we improvise the fifth act, which we ourselves (the church) are playing out.

This notion offers a widely neglected dimension of Biblical authority among reactionary, rationalist conservatives, who too often see the Bible as authoritative only in proffering information that binds us to believe and act.   Here Wright could have cited Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”   Word is act, not just information.

Assessment

This narrative view of Biblical authority is likely to elicit criticism from older evangelicals like Millard Erickson (in The Evangelical Left: Encountering Post-Conservative Evangelical Theology), who will remind us that even if stories are authoritative in a second-order sense, they must be translated into propositions actually to assert that authority. When we read stories, we don’t grasp their authority until we construct mental propositions that assert it: “Oh, I see; the author is really saying that I should (or should not) do such-and-such.”   Even if one affirms narrational authority, he cannot actually grasp it except by means of self-constructed propositions.   This is also why, no matter how narrational the Bible is construed to be, it will never substitute for systematic theology.   Stories must be translated into propositions (even if only mental propositions) in order to function as authority.   The tale of the Boy Who Cried Wolf exercises authority in that one infers the proposition: “If you lie often enough, people won’t believe you even when you tell the truth.”   Wright is correct, therefore, in stressing that propositions are no substitute for story, since story conveys the message in a powerful, emotive way.   But Erickson is correct that story is no substitute for propositions, since stories derive their authority from the factuality of the propositions they narrationally clothe.

Church-shaping narrative is a neglected dimension of Biblical authority, and Wright is correct to highlight it.   It is not, though, the only one.   Jesus and the apostles (not to mention the prophets of the Old Testament) do appeal to Scripture again and again to support assertions and settle issues (2 Kin. 23:24; Is. 8:18-20; Mt. 4:1-11; Jn. 5:39; Ac. 17:10-11; Gal. 3:16); that is, they employ Scripture as authority in a way that Wright resists.   Wright, however, seems to leave little room for this sort of exercise of Biblical authority, weary as he is of North American “Bible battles.”

Wright has (re-)captured a crucial aspect of Biblical authority in declaring that it exercises that authority powerfully when it changes us, the people of God.   This “ontological” component of Biblical authority is welcome to relief among rationalist conservatives who interpret Biblical authority only objectively — as something outside us to which we respond in obedience.   Actually, it, by the Spirit’s power in it, changes us into Christ’s image and thereby exerts its authority in a sublime and permanent way.   But in reminding ourselves that the Bible is authoritative in that it changes us, we cannot neglect the fact that it is authoritative in that it challenges us in its very assertions — and not just as its story/ies re-shape(s) the church’s thinking.

Finally, while there is no doubt that the Story is bigger than the Bible, it is equally true that we get the only objectively authoritative information about the Story in the Bible.    It is here that we still have much to learn from the redemptive-historical and salvation history schools (Vos, Ridderbos, Cullmann, Gaffin).   The chief role of the Bible is to preserve the kerygma; it is the revelation, attestation and interpretation of redemptive events that announces the Gospel, which changes lives and families and all of human culture.   The interface between the Scripture and the Story cannot allow the easy subordination of the one to the other.   Without the Story, the Scripture has no meaning; without the Scripture, the Story has no audience.   As Ridderbos has incisively argued, the Bible itself is an aspect of redemptive history.   It plays a role in mediating the message of man’s redemption and in establishing the boundaries by which he must live his life under God.   Wright would likely agree with this declaration, but his book is so intent to subordinate Scripture to Story that the objective character of Scripture as both Gospel- and regulation-bearer gets lost.

Wright’s thesis is less mistaken in what it affirms that in what it ignores.   The Bible does disclose a The Big Story culminating in Jesus, a grand five- (or six- or ten-?) act drama; but that Story does not marginalize the Bible, which contains commands that bind individuals — both Christian and non-Christian — and it does not exercise its authority merely by changing us internally.

Nonetheless, the significance of Wright’s book is disproportionate to its size.   Rightly or wrongly, if evangelicals adopt Wright’s thesis in toto, they will leave behind the view of Biblical authority to which they have grown comfortable.

Good Friday as Celebration of Conquest

Posted on April 19, 2012

Message Delivered at 

San Lorenzo Valley Good Friday Service

 First Baptist Church, San Lorenzo Valley

April 10, 2009

 

There are numerous and momentous implications of our Lord’s death that we celebrate today.  I draw attention this afternoon to just one of them: Christus Victor.  This view emerged very early in the church, and with good reason — the Bible teaches it.  It means “Christ is Victor.”  Satan and sin are our enemies.  In dying on the Cross, Jesus vanquished these enemies.  Jesus’ death defeats the Devil.  

Sin enslaves us (Rom. 6:17), and Satan is our captor (2 Tim. 2:26).  We’re born into his clutches.  We head down the wrong road from the very beginning.  Satan and sin snare us.  Sin addicts us.  We fall into sin and then we despair at the inevitable, destructive consequences, but then we keep on sinning.  More ominously, if we persist in sin, we’ll face God’s judgment in the end (Rom. 6:23).  Sin separates us from God.  It makes us God’s enemy.  We’re at war with God (Rom. 8:7).  

We know that Jesus’ death paid for our sins (1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18).  But it did more.  On the Cross, Jesus trounced Satan and sin and death itself.  He liberated sinners from their shackles.  The Cross isn’t just about paying the penalty of sin; it’s also and equally about liberating us from the power of sin. 

The Bible’s clear about this.  The writer of Hebrews (2:14-15) tell us of Jesus:

[T]hrough death He . . . destroy[ed] him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release[ed] those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. 

We read something similar in Colossians (2:15), where Paul declares that in his death, Jesus

. . . disarmed principalities and powers[;] He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.

The Cross means that Jesus is stronger than Satan.  He’s our mighty defender.  Hebrews calls him the captain or prince of our salvation (Heb. 2:10).  He willingly endured unspeakable agony to liberate us.  Like the Allied soldiers who liberated the horrifying Nazi POW camps, Jesus emancipated the prisoners only by great personal cost.  But liberate they — and our Lord — did. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a liberating Gospel.  The Gospel isn’t just the Good News that our sins are forgiven in Jesus.  It’s also the Good News that Jesus has broken the power of the world, the flesh and the Devil in our lives.   

Let me mention two implications of Christus Victor.

Sin Is No Longer Our Master

First, Christus Victor means that sin is no longer our master.  Jesus died not just to get rid of the penalty of sin — and not just one day in eternity to deliver us from the presence of sin.  In addition, today he’s delivering his people from the power and pleasure of sin.  

This is Paul’s message in Romans 6.  In our union with the crucified and risen Lord, we have died to sin and risen to righteousness, just as Jesus did.  

We’re not destined to sin.  We do sin, and we confess our sins, and God grants forgiveness (1 Jn.1:9); but the life of the Christian is a life dominated by victory over sin.  We may struggle with an untamed tongue, with lovelessness, with doubt, with immorality, with pride, with cowardice, with avarice or with Phariseeism.  But because of the Cross and resurrection, we can be victorious over these — and all other — sins.  Enslavement to sin is not our destiny.  

Ask yourself this question: what sin must I commit?  True, we’ll never gain sinless perfection this side of the resurrection, but we can — and should — gain consistent victory over sin.  

Christian: the message to you and me is that we’re not destined to live in the stranglehold of sin.  We celebrate on Good Friday our liberation from the dominating power of sin. 

Satan is a Defeated Foe

Second, Christus Victor means that Satan is a defeated foe.  Jesus once explained what was happening when he cast out demons (Mt. 12:29):  

“[H]ow can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.”

Satan and his demons enslave sinners, but Jesus came to plunder Satan’s kingdom.  He came to rescue sinners — that is, us.  We were Satan’s slaves, bound in sin and headed for Hell.  But Jesus bound Satan and then entered the enemy’s slave quarters and liberated us.  He’s our new master.  

How did he do this?

Just days before his death, Jesus declared to his followers (Jn. 12:31):

“Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world [Satan] will be cast out.”

When Jesus died, he judged the world.  The “world” is the system of life under Satanic control.  On the Cross, Jesus threw Satan off his worldly throne.   Because of the Cross, Satan will never be the same.  He has been mortally wounded.  

At the Cross, the promise of Genesis 3:15 made in the Garden of Eden was fulfilled.  The seed of the woman crushed the head of the serpent’s seed.  At the Cross, God got the last laugh. 

For too long the church has seen itself as an embattled minority, predestined to increased irrelevance and failure.  But if the Cross is what the Bible says it is, the church marches forward in great victory.  Despite failures and setbacks and sins, the church revels in the wake of her Lord’s great Cross-victory, preaching and living the Gospel, and longing for the day when all Christ’s enemies will be made his footstool (Heb. 10:13).  

The Cross vanquished Satan’s Kingdom, and history is the relentless outworking of that Gospel victory.

The Gospel Question

Perhaps you haven’t settled the Gospel question.  Perhaps Jesus isn’t your Savior and Lord.  But he died for the sins of the world, and if you vest your faith in him; if you trust him and not your own works or goodness or ritual or virtue; if you make him your Lord, today you, too, can be gloriously saved.   Jesus will become your Lord and King.  He’ll be your great defender and avenger.  He’ll progressively crush the Devil and sin and the world for you and me and the church.  

This is Christus Victor, and we should celebrate it this Good Friday day — and every day. 

The False Teaching of “Transitioning” into Discipleship

Posted on April 19, 2012

The fundamental premise of our [C]hristian faith is the lordship of Jesus Christ.  It stands at the heart and core of Christianity.  Everything in the Christian faith — becoming a Christian, living the Christian life, and the ultimate outcome of being a Christian — stands or falls on the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Charles T. Carter, “The Lordship of Jesus Christ”

Not all false teachings in the church are properly classed as theological heresies, such that they would violate a specific doctrinal statement or confession of faith.  Some of the most pernicious false teachings, ordinarily more implied than explicated, can pass muster at the bar of almost any traditional confession of faith — and in fact are found in almost all kinds of churches.  These are often procedural assumptions about the Faith and the Christian life that, lying just beneath the surface of a church’s vocal teachings, are never uttered but always presupposed.  In many cases, it is these assumptions, and not explicit heresy, that pollute the church and eventually drive it into apostasy.

A prime example of such teaching is the error of assuming that Christians “transition” into discipleship.  It goes like this: When we preach the Gospel, we are trying to get people to trust in Jesus.  This trust (engendered by the Holy Spirit, of course) is a huge step, and we cannot expect that those who take that step will also take the second, and always subsequent, massive step of living obedient lives; spending time in prayer; attending public worship faithfully; reorienting their thinking in family and cultural issues; and so forth.  The goal of the church is to convince new converts of the need to be disciples; it is simply too much to demand discipleship of new Christians.

Exponents of this teaching will point to texts like 1 Corinthians 3:2, Hebrews 5:12 and 1 Peter 2:2, which distinguish between immature and mature Christians, between those who can consume spiritual milk from those who can masticate meat.  There can, in truth, be no doubt that differing levels of growth characterize different Christians, and we dare not dismiss this fact; but it in no way refutes the notion that all Christians are disciples.  Even babyish and immature Christians desire to please Jesus Christ, labor to obey His Word, and long to worship with the church, no matter how often they fail and how imperfectly they succeed.  Jesus’ apostles were constantly sinning and failing — but they were His disciples.  Even though they all (except John) abandoned Him at His crucifixion, a few days later they repented and worshiped Him in all of His resurrection glory.

Not long ago a young friend of mine trusted her life to Jesus Christ.  From the beginning she knew that being a Christian means following Jesus.  She knew that her father, an unbeliever, would be upset by her new faith.  She told me, “But I know that I must tell him that I’m a Christian.”

“Yes,” I replied, “there are no ‘undercover’ Christians.  People need to know that your allegiance is to Jesus Christ.  This is why baptism as a public act is so vital.  It says, ‘I am a Christian, and I don’t care who knows.’”

This young lady did tell her father, who took the news much better than she had expected.

In an authentic Christian economy, this example is the routine, not the exception.  In trusting Jesus Christ, saved sinners become disciples of Jesus Christ.

The High Cost of False Teaching

A severe poison has infected our churches as a result of the inability or refusal to see the error of the teaching of transitioning into discipleship.  Pastors imply and operate the entire church’s ministry as though a prime ministerial job is to convince Christians, those who have “said ‘yes’ to Jesus,” to become disciples rather than working, as these pastors should, to make better disciples of Christians who already have submitted to Jesus Christ.  It is simply assumed that church members and regular attendees will live much like the world lives — in fornication, hatred, pornography, avarice, racism, laziness, self-centeredness, abortion, machismo, envy, homosexuality, feminism, and so on.  These churches do not understand, or they deny the fact, that in trusting in Jesus Christ, an internal act formalized externally at baptism (Rom. 6:1-6), sinners make a radical break with their previous life of submission to Satan.  They now serve another Master (Rom. 8).  “This [fact] does not ignore the need for Christian growth,” writes Charles T. Carter, “nor does it imply absolute perfection.  However, a perfect (or full, complete) commitment must be made to Christ as Lord.”

The church that does not demand such commitment as an incontestable aspect of its Gospel message will gradually be filled with unbelievers who are nonetheless assured that are converted on the grounds that they have trusted in Christ.  But this trust, or faith, according to the Bible is more than intellectual assent.  It is a wholesale casting of oneself on Jesus Christ, whose atoning work on the Cross and victorious work from the empty tomb washes away our sins and whose exaltation as Lord governs our lives.  When we trust Jesus, we trust him totally — to save us not just from the past penalty and future presence of sin but also the present power and pleasure of sin.  Only disciples are saved.  Moreover, not all forms of faith are valid.  Faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:14-26).  An authentic, saving faith is a submissive, working faith.

Gradually churches that separate discipleship from salvation become hotbeds of false believers, assured of their salvation on the basis of their profession, which is seemingly never questioned, no matter how profligate their lives may be.  In the sacerdotal churches, it is assumed that all those baptized and in weekly communion are united to Jesus in that they are united to the church.  The fact that throughout much of the history of the Old Testament, the vast majority of the Jewish males, bearing circumcision as the mark of covenant inclusion, lacked any circumcision of the heart, flatly refutes any teaching that covenant inclusion (“church membership”) in the New Testament economy confers salvation.  The first epistle of John is clear — though no one is sinless in this life, people who do not live lives dominated by righteousness, that is, lawless individuals, are simply not believers, no matter how tied to the church they are.

Churches will never escape this lawless morass until they understand that the goal of salvation is not principally to allow sinners to escape God’s judgment but, rather, to create a redeemed people who love God and obey Him (Tit. 2:14).  It is clear that the book of Romans, the most sustained treatment in the Bible of God’s plan for the world, teaches that God’s objective is to clean up this sinful world by the redemptive work of His Son Jesus Christ.  God does this, first, by getting rid of the judgment that stands against sinful man — God judges us as righteous on the basis of Jesus’ righteous death and resurrection, which are imputed (credited) to all who trust in Jesus (Rom. 3:21-4:12).  God also gets rid of sin by changing our sinful desires and implanting a righteous nature within us, created and sustained by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 6:6-23; 8:1-17).  The target of salvation is draining the world’s swampland of sinful poison and replacing it with the fresh water of eternal salvation accomplished by Jesus’ redemptive work.  God is not only in the rescue business, important though that is; He is chiefly in the clean-up business.

And if we do not live “cleaned-up” lives, we are exhibiting a lack of God’s saving work.  Therefore, the task of the church is never to implore Christians to become disciples; it is to assist disciples in becoming better ones.

Boys, This Ain’t Scholarship

Posted on April 17, 2012

I’m not going to interact with the substance of Robert Godfrey’s and Mike Horton’s breezy responses to John Frame’s The Escondido Theology (just as they didn’t interact with the substance of Frame’s book), but I can’t pass up a “teaching moment” (as we say these days) to those onlookers who might want to learn a thing or two about scholarship — and substandard scholarship.

First, read this from Godfrey, the main point of his response to Frame:

Perhaps the simplest way to do that [“set the record straight”] is to refer to the thirty-two bullet points with which John has summarized our views at the beginning of the book (pp. xxxvii-xxxix).  He introduces these bullet points by claiming: “Below are some assertions typical of, and widely accepted among, Escondido theologians.  Not all of them make all of these assertions, but all of them regard them with some sympathy” (p,xxxvii).  In response all of us on the WSC faculty wish to state clearly that we reject all of these thirty-two points as a fair or accurate presentation of our views…. In relation to most of John’s bullet points we believe and teach the very opposite of what is attributed to us.

Similarly, Horton writes:

Do not assume that if you’ve read The Escondido Theology you actually have any grasp of what I or any of us [sic] teach at Westminster Seminary California.

Frame’s book is comprised almost entirely of extensive and intensive book reviews from current Westminster Seminary California (WSC) faculty.  They are not PR notices (like Godfrey’s presidential response) nor are they a list of disputed categories with sprinkled comments (like Horton’s response).  They are weighty, analytical, documented book reviews.  They take the authors’ leading arguments seriously and critically interact with those arguments.  They agree with the authors on some points and disagree on other points.  In other words, they are standard, scholarly book reviews.

Now consider what Godfrey is saying in his response to these reviews.  A scholar and former long-standing faculty member interacts critically and analytically with prime works by the leading members of the WSC faculty, and that reviewer manages not only to unfairly or inaccurately depict every single one of thirty-two of their positions, but manages in addition, to portray their views as “the very opposite” of what they believe.  In Horton’s language, you wouldn’t “have any grasp of what I or any of us teach at Westminster Seminary California” (emphasis supplied).

What’s so Bizarre 

If you’ll think about it, this defense borders on the bizarre. Most disagreeing responses to scholarly book reviews go something like this: “The reviewer understood most of my views, misunderstood others, and he is wrong in his opposition to my views, and here’s why; and his misunderstandings of certain of my views are irrelevant because I simply don’t hold those views.”  That is a credible disagreeing rejoinder to book reviewers, and scholars do it all the time.  If the author is humble and interested in getting at the truth, he might even say, “The reviewer make some good points, and I’ll re-think my views in light of them.”

Never in all my years (many years now) of reading authors’ responses to reviews of their books have I read, “The reviewer misunderstood or misinterpreted or unfairly or inaccurately characterized every single one of my views that he discussed.”

This line of reasoning has an air of unreality about it.  If a reviewer unfairly or inaccurately characterizes every single position of the book(s) — a whopping thirty-two in this case, not two or three, which is not entirely uncommon, but thirty-two — there is something more than ordinary misunderstanding going on.  The reviewer is either so dense that he cannot understand arguments, or he is deliberately twisting the book’s arguments.  In commonsense parlance, “Two’s a coincidence, but three’s a trend.”

Please understand what Godfrey is saying: “John Frame, a Princeton- and Yale- (and Westminster- ) trained theologian-philosopher, founding and longtime faculty member at our very institution, author of massive tomes on systematics and all sorts of other topics (much more than any current WSC faculity member), widely recognized as a rigorous thinker steeped in the best of the analytical philosophical tradition that prizes clarity and analysis, has managed to unfairly or inaccurately characterize every single position of ours — count ’em, thirty-two — that he addressed.”  Or Horton: “Do not assume that if you’ve read The Escondido Theology you actually have any grasp of what I or any of us teach at Westminster Seminary California.” Any grasp?

Now if this is the case, there are two — and only two — explanations: either Frame is dense — no scholar at all, in fact — or else he has intentionally mischaracterized the WSC views and is therefore an immoral liar.  Frame is either stupid or sinister.

If any faculty at any credible college or university received a book by a prominent scholar at a sister institution reviewing five or six books of its leading scholars, and the faculty all said, with one voice, “He has unfairly or inaccurately characterized every single position of ours, making it appear that we teach the exact opposite of what we actually think, and you could not get any grasp of what we actually teach by reading these reviews” they’d be laughed right out of their mahogany paneled offices.  It does not happen, and could not happen.

Except at Westminster Seminary in California.

Young scholars and students, let this be a lesson to you: if you ever have the fortune of having your book reviewed by a world-renowned scholar, and you don’t like what he says, don’t respond by saying, “He didn’t understand a thing I said, and he perverted everything I said into its very opposite.”

Not, at least, if you wish to be taken seriously.

But implicitly accusing reviewers of either massive ignorance or malevolent intent seems to be quite acceptable at WSC.  That’s not the way actual scholars interact with one another in the real world.

I myself am no great scholar and never claimed to be.  But I have read great scholarship for many years.  I know scholarship when I see it.

And, boys, this ain’t scholarship.

The “Patriarchy” Problem

Posted on April 17, 2012

“Patriarchy” means, “father rule.”  The concept of father necessitates a child or children (“father” is not equivalent to “husband”), so the word patriarchy might be thought to imply that the father as father bears unique and final human authority in the family.  If so, this assumption is false.  From the Biblical teaching that the faithful wife must submit to her loving, sacrificial husband (Eph. 5:22f) some spring to the conclusion that the mother does not bear equal authority with respect to their children.  They believe that the familial hierarchy in descending order goes like this: father –> mother –> children.  The problem is that this is not what the Bible teaches.  Paul teaches, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother,’” (Eph. 6:1–2a; cf. Col. 3:20, emphasis supplied).   Paul does not teach (nor does anyone else in the Bible teach), “Children, your father is the ruler in the family, and you must obey your mother to the extent that she obeys your father, for he is the final human authority in the family — Father Rules!”  It is notable, in fact, that whenever the Bible has in mind children’s obligation to parents, it never depicts a paternal hierarchy, only a parental hierarchy.  This parental parity is especially striking in the Book of Proverbs:

My son, keep your father’s command, And do not forsake the law of your mother (6:20).

The proverbs of Solomon: A wise son makes a glad father, But a foolish son [is] the grief of his mother (10:1).

He who mistreats [his] father [and] chases away [his] mother [Is] a son who causes shame and brings reproach (19:26).

Whoever curses his father or his mother, His lamp will be put out in deep darkness (20:20).

Listen to your father who begot you, And do not despise your mother when she is old (23:22).

Whoever robs his father or his mother, And says, “[It is] no transgression,” The same [is] companion to a destroyer (28:24).

[There is] a generation [that] curses its father, And does not bless its mother (30:11).

The eye [that] mocks [his] father, And scorns obedience to [his] mother, The ravens of the valley will pick it out, And the young eagles will eat it (30:17).

No reasonable reader of this wisdom literature, calculated to instruct the naïve young man in the way of wisdom, would assume patriarchy, “father rules”; rather, he would get the distinct impression that God vests the parents with a parity of authority.  Interestingly, in fact, the term father rarely appears in Proverbs without the term mother. This is another way of saying that with reference to their children, father and mother share equal authority in the family.

Therefore, the Biblical familial hierarchy goes like this: parents –> children.  The father has no more say in the children’s rearing than the mother, and therefore “patriarchy,” denotatively speaking, is no more valid than “matriarchy.”  The Bible does not teach that the father is the head of the household; it teaches that man is the head of woman (1 Cor. 11:2–3), an altogether different issue.

Alleged Biblical Support for Patriarchy

In opposing this view the document  “The Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy” lists as support Genesis 18:19 and Ephesians 6:4.  The latter warns the father not to provoke his children to anger but to rear them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.  It implies that of the two parents, the father may be most inclined to employ his parental authority sinfully, but it in no way implies that his authority trumps the mother’s authority.  In Genesis 18:19 God credits Abraham with “commanding his children and household.”  It is a statement in the context of verifying God’s covenant with Abraham.  The reason Abraham’s wife Sarah is not mentioned as commanding the children (as the mother in Proverbs is depicted) is because it was not Sarah with whom God directly made a covenant.  Genesis 18:19 is a statement about paternal faithfulness, not familial hierarchy.  A similar text is 1 Timothy 5:14, which teaches that a chief task of younger widows who marry is to “guide” or “manage” the house.  The term means to serve as master or to rule a household.  If, therefore, we had only this text by which to formulate our understanding of familial hierarchy, we would conclude that the wife and mother (not the husband or father) is the head (master or lord) of the household.  But this text is not teaching that the wife and mother is vested with greater household authority than the husband or father.  It is teaching that in her domestic role she is the principal authority.  The husband is the primary breadwinner (1 Tim. 5:8) and less occupied with domestic duties, which do consume the life of the mother (Prov. 31:23, cf. 10–31).  The wife and mother in this sense is the lord, head and manager of the family. This is the explicit meaning in 1 Timothy 5:14.  Within these parameters, we might even say that while the husband is the head of the wife, the wife is the head of the household.

This paradigm helps us to better understand the Bible’s hierarchical familial arrangements (note the all-important plural): husband –> wife / parents –> children, not husband-father –> wife-mother –> children. This is to say that the father and mother must agree on decisions relating to their children and have veto power over each with respect to their children.  A father who runs roughshod over the mother’s authority pertaining to their children is no less sinful than a wife who refuses to submit to her husband’s leading.

Nor does this paradigm deny a division of labor, such that each parent must be consulted on every conceivable decision.  The husband may delegate to the wife his authority for deciding the children’s diet, for example, just as the wife may delegate to the husband her authority about what sports their children may play.  But any husband whose attitude toward vital decisions like whom the minor children should date or court is, “I’ll let their mother handle that,” or any wife who says of their children’s education, “Their father will decide where and how they attend school” has abdicated his and her obligation before God.  A mother who permits the father to usurp her authority in rearing their children will stand responsible before God for violating a sacred trust that God has given her as a mother.

Conclusion

“The Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy” trumpets, “Egalitarian feminism is an enemy of God and of biblical truth.”  This is correct, but patriarchal machismo is also and equally an enemy of Biblical truth, and it, no less than egalitarian feminism, must be exposed for the false teaching that it is.

Crusading Christianity

Posted on April 15, 2012

Passion for Catholicity

In recent years I’ve tried to make a chief feature of my ministry catholicity, specifically, orthodox Christians working together for wholesale reformation.  Culture-reclaiming Christians committed to Biblical authority, the apostolic Gospel, and historic orthodoxy should not allow their secondary differences to divide them.  The stakes are too high; our culture is too decadent for us Biblical Christians to wallow in nit-picking sectarianism and divert ourselves from the collective task to press the Lordship of Christ in all of life.  Catholicity for cultural change is a cornerstone of Biblical faith.

Tenacity for Truth

But culture-avoiding sectarianism is not the only danger confronting us.  We now encounter a massive defection — there is perhaps no better expression for it — from Biblical Faith in formerly orthodox, Bible-believing corners: among the evangelicals.  This is not a “crisis” that I have manufactured; it is evident to all who have open eyes and objective minds.  Nor should this defection surprise us.  A pervasive example of naiveté, as David Wells has noted, is the idea that great decadence can never emerge within the church.  This sunny notion is patently false, as the history of Christianity, certainly the Christianity of the 20th century, abundantly testifies.  Three quick examples of today’s defection will support my point:

Example # 1:  You may have heard about the group “Evangelicals for Obama” with which prominent “post-conservative” Christians are bandwagoning.  Franky Schaeffer, late Francis’ son, supports Obama because Franky is so pro-life.  But Obama, you may be thinking, is thoroughly and eagerly pro-abortion.  What, then, is Franky is trying to say?  In essence that Obama is a politician who is “full of life” [!]. But endorsing the legality of the murder of preborn children is no celebration of life, no matter who’s spinning the PR.  Tony Jones, at the vanguard of the Emergent (and Emerging?) Movement, has also endorsed Obama, as have a number of other younger evangelicals.

These Christians and those like them tend to decry the captivity of evangelicals by the Christian Right and the Republican Party, their new whipping boys.  Well, I agree with that caveat.  Christians must ever and always be captive to Jesus Christ and His infallible Word, not to political parties or ideologies.  But to say that Christians should not be captive to a political ideology is not to say (a) that free markets are no less Biblically justifiable than socialism, (b) that the burden of the American “Black experience” is a valid explanation for the inane and hysterical rants of Barak Obama’s long-time pastor Jeremiah Wright, and (c) that supporting an aggressive pro-abortion candidate (like Obama) is ethically preferable to supporting a pro-life foreign-policy-hawk candidate (whoever he may be).  But this is just what a growing number of evangelicals are saying or implying.

Example # 2:  Fuller Seminary New Testament Professor Marianne Meye Thompson writes in the Winter 2008 issue of the Seminary’s house organ Theology, News & Notes: “[T]he inerrancy of Scripture . . .  has at times been taken by some [sic!] to be essential to an ‘evangelical’ doctrine of Scripture, but . . . others, including Fuller Seminary, have not deemed [inerrancy] to be helpful in coming to terms with the phenomena of Scripture or its authoritative function for faith and practice” (p. 12).  While no thoughtful Christian should bow to a form of Biblical inerrancy that subordinates it to categories of thought alien to the Bible itself, it is remarkable how easily more and more evangelicals are surrendering the classical confidence in the full trustworthiness of the Bible under the pressures of modernity and postmodernity.  Should we be surprised if in 50 years their institutional heirs have given up on the authority of the Bible altogether (just as happened in nearly all the major Protestant denominations)?  Must not the Bible be truthful to be divinely authoritative?

Example # 3:  In the long-awaited symposium from the Emergent Movement, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope (Baker Books, 2007), edited by Tony Jones and by Doug Pagitt, contributor Samir Selmanovic writes that for too long Christianity has been influential in the West.  It now needs to fail.  (Read that line again.)  For too long Christianity has insisted that one must trust in Jesus Christ to obtain eternal life; this dogmatic insistence just plain turns people off, and we must get rid of it.  We follow Jesus best (so goes the logic) by not insisting that people trust in Jesus Christ.   Selmanovic argues that Christians must “reinterpret the Bible, reconstruct the theology, and reimagine the church to match the character of God that we as followers of Christ [presumably, people who agree with him] have come to know” (p. 191).  In other words, human experience must be the new criterion for Christian belief and practice.  No theological liberal ever said it better.

In the same volume, gadfly Brian McLaren savages Western Christianity for its “colonialism” and reprimands the United States for its material wealth, suggesting that “[w]e are rich in resources gained at the expense of the colonized” (p. 150).  The fact that he has not learned even the most basic economic fact that free trade is never a zero-sum game but that it enriches all parties involved never seems to have stopped McLaren from his demonstrably spurious utterances.  They do, however, find enthusiastic reception among young, white, guilt-ridden evangelicals who never studied basic economics — and seemingly do not know what the Bible teaches on these topics.

Evangelicalism has gone soft at its core, and it’s in danger of rotting away.

Liberalism on the Cheap

These examples highlight today’s poorly concealed revival of the old Protestant liberalism among the evangelicals without, as John Frame has noted, the intellectual firepower of the older liberalism.   Much of today’s evangelicalism is liberalism on the cheap.

The problem isn’t that these Christians aren’t culturally relevant; they’re increasingly relevant.  The problem is that they’re culturally relevant in injurious ways.  Transformed Christians must be transformed from their accommodation to the world spirit (Francis — not Franky — Schaffer warned of this danger 20 years ago) and to the mind of the Spirit disclosed in God’s infallible Word (Rom. 12:1-2).

The present evangelical crop has things just backwards: they live in conceptual and ethical accommodation to the world.  The next generation is in danger today of losing the Faith.

What Zealous Christians Do About the Defection

I am haunted by words I once read from an old, stodgy — but faithful — preacher I knew:  “You cannot preserve a position without crusading for it.”  I thought at the time, “This sounds unnecessarily combative and just isn’t true.  After all, you don’t need to crusade for the Trinity to preserve it, do you?”

But, no longer a young man, I have now lived long enough to observe the trends of conservative Christianity and learned (painfully) the element of the truth in this old preacher’s words.   One generation obtains through great combat and suffering the spiritual capital that the next generation squanders in its diffident accommodation to the world spirit.

The heart of the problem is a heart problem: drifting away from unalloyed devotion to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  Pleasing the world and man rather than pleasing God.  Lusting for success rather than living in faithfulness.  Increasingly accommodating to forms of the world spirit.

Amid this accommodation, I refuse to go down without a fight.  I intend to intensify my prophetic trumpet blast to greater Biblical fidelity and devotion to Jesus Christ and His infallible Word without which godly cultural reclamation is a mirage.

The Empirical Heretics

Posted on April 14, 2012

G. C. Berkouwer has riveted attention on the dangers of the empirical heretic, by which he denotes that false teacher who, while in conformity to the creeds of the church, propagates doctrine (or advocates actions) that diminish the proclamation of the Gospel (The Church, in Studies in Dogmatics [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976], 381). Operating safely within the confines of the creeds and confessions (he’s no Arian, by Jove!), the empirical heretic undermines the church and, if unchecked, vanquishes its mission. Examples in the contemporary church abound.  To wit:

The health and wealth Gospel, according to which Jesus saves us to make us rich, fat, happy and sassy.  If we’re not exhibiting exuberant health and material abundance, our faith is lacking. The fact that few godly people in the Bible could make this claim (Jesus least of all) seems never to stop the health and wealthers.

Then there’s its opposite (or is it?).  The evangelical socialism such as we see over at Sojourners: the true disciples vest the omni-competent and coercive state with the power to rectify all social injustices — defined, of course, by the political elite.  The state nearly applies for a vacancy in the Trinity.

In Protestant liberalism there’s soteric moralism: I am better than thou and, pitying the drunk, the pedophile and the capitalist, utters, “There but for the grace of my own morality go I.”  We might term it, as one wag put it, dragging yourself down to Hell by your own bootstraps.  Trampling Jesus’ blood underfoot has rarely been more graphically instanced.

And then the conservative counterpart: The Grace Revival, meaning: for too long Christians have required people to submit the Jesus Lordship on pain of judgment. Man’s real enemy is righteousness, not lawlessness; so let’s banish God’s law to the church bus’s back and sin that grace may abound.

Again, over on the Left (and, increasingly, the center-Left) — feminism.  Jesus liberates women, and this means, in our Madly Oppressive church culture, a mad rush to get women on the elder roll and in the pulpits thundering forth (or at least cooing sympathetically).  And how can we expect the Gospel to be potent as long as we haven’t liberated the lades?  It’s sexual liberation that Jesus is all about!

And over on the Right — patriarchy.  Culture’s headed to Hell not because it lacks the Gospel but because it lacks ironly Daddies and submissive Mommies and boys who grow up to dictate like Daddy and girls who grow up to mumble like Mommy — and, above all, not to attend college.  Daddy’s girls, you know.  (Not Jesus’ girls.)

And the loveless churches.  Bursting with pride of appearance and truth and zeal, there’s no place for garden-variety sinners (only sinners who deftly conceal their sin, selective sinners).  There’s no kindness and forgiveness and care and tenderness — only austerity under the guise of truth-iness. Yet this is no truth, but a loveless lie.

And then the love-ful churches, where love is tantamount to condoning sin.  Better: where confronting sin is the only sin. “Our great virtue is non-judgmentalism.  Come as you are.  Stay as you are.  Live as you are.  Die as you are.  We but love, love, love.”  A love that excludes all that would decimate love (immorality, betrayal, drug addictions, narcissism) is never loved.  Only the non-judgmental love, that is, the satanically counterfeited love, is on display.

These and other empirical heretics can fly 24/7 under the heresy-sniffers’ radar.

In this way, some of the churches that most pride themselves on their orthodoxy display the most injurious heresy.

That Good Old-Fashioned Modernism

Posted on April 14, 2012

In The Courage to be Protestant, David Wells observes that (post)modern “post-conservative” evangelicals (like Roger Olsen) really aren’t that different theologically from the old Protestant liberals (also called “modernists” at the time).  In an extended CCL interview published in “Christian Culture,” I posed this question to John M. Frame, and his answer, in essence, is that the more radical Emergents today (like Brian McLaren) are akin to the older liberals — except that the older liberals were smart.

Ancient Modernism

The operational motif of Protestant liberalism has been the commitment to refashioning Christianity to make it acceptable to the leading themes of the contemporary age: every age must have its own unique theology.  This conformist program actually began in the patristic church, when some of the church fathers (one thinks immediately of Origen) synthesized Biblical Christianity with the prevailing currents of Greco-Roman thought.  A prime example is the degradation of sex and of the materiality of the created order, an idea obviously influenced by Platonism.  We might term this phenomenon “ancient modernism.”

Early Modernism

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, often considered the father of modern liberalism, drank deeply from the Romantic currents of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and his theological profundity (not to be confused with Biblical fidelity) shaped a new departure for Christian theology: the source of theology is man’s feeling of absolute dependence on God.  Just as the Romantics broke with Enlightenment in positing the interior of man as the depth of reality, so Schleiermacher broke with orthodoxy in grounding religious authority in the subjective rather than the objective.  From our historic vantage point, it is easy to recognize that, no matter what his intent, Schleiermacher “re-imagined” Christianity in the image of the spirit of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Later Modernism

The Protestant liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries perpetuated Schleiermacher’s religious Romanticism but increasingly made way for an explosively successful secular science, including hostility to divine interruptions into history — Biblical miracles, resurrections, and so on.  God may be at work within history, but He is not at work in miraculous ways.  The effect of this move was to make Christianity palatable to the educated classes — and in so doing gut Biblical Christianity (but, of course, the divine inspiration of the Bible was itself one of those miracles that simply could not survive the modern world).

“Neo-Orthodoxy”

So-called “neo-orthodoxy” recovered something of the older view of the depravity of humanity and the majesty of God, but it did so at the expense of a unified understanding of the world.  Francis Schaeffer would later suggest that “neo-orthodoxy” was largely the religious version of a wider intellectual phenomenon in the culture — the division of life into the “upper” story and the “lower” story.  The “upper” story is the realm of God and the spiritual and mystical and “religious experience”; the “lower” story” is the province of earth, materiality, empirical science, “ordinary life,” and so on.  This dualism permitted Christians to maintain belief in God and “religious experience” without the embarrassment of affirming the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the verbal inspiration of the Bible.  It was, in the words of Clark Pinnock, a religious salvage operation.

The Post-Conservative Evangelicals

Today some of the “post-conservative” evangelicals (and leading “Emergents”) follow in the liberal tradition by “re-imagining” the Faith and the church in postmodern terms.  Since postmodernity is resistant to claims of transcultural truth, the “post-conservative” evangelicals cannot abide the notion of an infallible Scripture or a Gospel message that excludes from salvation all who do not trust in Jesus Christ.  Because postmodernity subordinates the conceptual to the relational, “post-conservative” evangelicals are not much interested in orthodox conceptions of the Trinity but rather stress the “economic” (relations within the) Trinity.  In that postmodernity is centered in man and his communities, “post-conservative” evangelicals see the mission of God as the restoration of man to fellowship with God rather than as the glory of God, some even arguing that the Biblical teaching of Christ’s substitutionary death is “cosmic child abuse” — after all, if God’s plan is all about pleasing man, why would He ever cause one man (His Son, no less) to suffer for the sins of another?  In these ways and many others, “post-conservative” evangelicals are the latest permutation of Protestant liberalism (modernism).

If these ideas continue to grow in the younger evangelical communities, we will likely preside over the funeral of Biblical evangelicalism in the coming decades.

On Drawing Lines in the Sand

Posted on April 14, 2012

Somewhere between sectarianism and latitudinarianism lay the Biblical approach to dividing good from evil.

The sectarians see their own secondary denominational distinctives as critical for faith and fellowship, and excommunicate — literally or metaphorically — almost everybody who doesn’t toe the party line.  The sectarians divide the Faith and faithful over such ancillary issues as sign gifts, baptism, predestination, communion, church government, home schooling, liturgy, prophecy, Bible translations, and contemporary worship music.  By “The Church” they often mean their church.  If they are confessional Lutherans or Reformed, they permit no deviation from the theological symbols of the 16th and 17th centuries.  If they are Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, they recognize other Christians as, at best, “separated brothers” and, at worst, outside the pale of salvation.  If they are fundamentalists, they posit their churches as the “separated, pure” churches and others as tainted with compromise.  If they are charismatic or Pentecostal, they patronize believers who do not share their experience of tongues speaking or Spirit-filling.  And so on.  Fortunately, many among these godly sectors of Christianity are not sectarian, but the sectarians are often the most vocal — and, by their very nature, the most divisive.

Thus the sectarians.

Alternatively, the latitudinarians recognize almost nothing over which Christendom should be divided, simply because nothing is all that important — except, of course, latitude. The chief point of the latitudinarian program is unity, though it is not entirely clear around what issue latitudinarians are unified apart from the principle of unity itself. The infallibility of the Bible; the full deity, humanity, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection and literal Second Coming of Jesus Christ; the integrity of marriage and licit heterosexuality; the sacredness of innocent human life, especially preborn children— all of these bedrock truths of the Bible are negotiable by the latitudinarians.  They lament the divisions in Christianity, and, sensing the havoc wreaked by the sectarians, they are often correct to do so.  They are the Rodney King Christians: “Why can’t we all just get along?”

There is a simple answer to that question. We can’t all just get along because certain viewpoints and actions are irreconcilable with others.  The fact that sectarians divide over comparative non-essentials is no excuse for unity despite disagreement over essentials. The rallying cry of “unity” tends to grace the lips of those well intentioned that have suffered the schismatic pains of the sectarians.  The good-hearted unity-tarians, however, soon discover that the list of non-negotiables grows ever shorter, when “unity among all who profess Christ” is the heart-felt rallying cry.  The Bible’s infallibility (“After all, why quibble over details?”), the atoning death of Jesus (“There are all sorts of ways to understand Jesus’ death”), the exclusivity of the Gospel (“But the loving God could not demand that everybody actually trust in Jesus to be saved”), and the inviolability of Biblical sexual ethics (“But abortion and homosexuality are such complex issues”) are eventually excised from the list of non-negotiables.  What’s left is little more than a vague affirmation of Christian evangelism and increasingly strident calls for unity.

Many years ago I was asked to participate in the local permutation of a National Day of Prayer (this is long before the NDP was declared unconstitutional).  At the meeting of the steering committee that was planning invitations to leaders to pray over the impending event, I asked if the Apostles Creed might not be a good doctrinal basis for the invitation.  To this one of the ministers (it was woman) offered the prickly reply, “Well, we don’t want to exclude any true Christians from leading us in prayer.”

To which I rejoined: “Lady, if somebody can’t say the Apostles Creed in good conscience, he isn’t entitled to be called a Christian.”

The Apostles Creed is a necessary, if not always sufficient, line in the sand.  If you can’t affirm that God created the world, that Jesus died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life, you have no business calling yourself a Christian — and other Christians need to draw a line in the sand keeping you away from the National Day of Prayer (of course, secular judges today occupy the august role of keeping the President away from it).

Today with latitudinarians to the left us and sectarians to the right, we should be gloriously stuck in the middle with a virile, gutsy Faith.

Where the central truths of the Faith are questioned or denied; where Biblical ethics (read: the sanctity of preborn and elderly life and the inviolability of marriage) are derided; where unity at all costs is declaimed — there Biblical Christians in all churches and all Christian ministries must draw a line in the sand.

“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Is. 5:20)

Frame, Horton, Westminster, and Old Testament Moralizing

Posted on April 14, 2012

In the current dispute between Professor John M. Frame (see Review of Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church) and the Westminster Seminary California (WSC) Establishment, notably Mike Horton, Scott Clark, and Darryl Hart, relating to Horton’s book Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, one vital issue is the exemplary use of the Bible (especially the OT), that is, how we today should use examples in the Bible in our teaching and preaching.

In the interests of full disclosure: I’m a friend of John Frame’s, agree with his criticism of Horton’s book, have enlisted him to speak at my conferences, and contributed to his Festschrift titled Speaking the Truth in Love.  But I ask the reader to consider the evidence below on its own merits.

In his review of Horton, Frame writes:

So it is wrong, Horton says, to present (emphasize?) characters in Bible stories as moral examples (148-52).

[Horton:] Instead of drawing a straight line of application from the narrative to us, which typically moralizes or allegorizes the story, we are taught by Jesus himself to understand these passages in the light of their place in the unfolding drama of redemption that leads to Christ. (151)

[Frame:] This is another of many false dichotomies in this book. Horton says that understanding passages in the light of Christ is incompatible with understanding them as providing moral examples. But Christ himself called on the Jews to rejoice in his day, as Abraham did (John 8:56). He commended David’s behavior in supplying food to his hungry men (Mark 2:25).

Imitation is a major means of sanctification in Scripture. We are to imitate God (Ex. 20:11, Lev. 11:44, Matt. 5:48, 1 Pet. 1:15-16) and Jesus (John 13:14-15, 34-35, Phil. 2:5-11, 1 Pet. 2:21, 1 John 3:16, 4:9-11). We are to imitate the apostles as they imitate Christ (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1). The Israelites in the wilderness are negative examples in 1 Cor. 10:6 and Heb. 4:11, as are Sodom and Gomorrah in Jude 7. Timothy is to be an example to other believers (1 Tim. 4:12). Hebrews 11 presents many “heroes of faith” as examples for us. James refers to the prophets and Job as examples of suffering and patience (James 5:10-11) and to Elijah as a man of prayer (verses17-18).

[….]

Horton is right to say that Bible characters foreshadow Christ in various ways. He is also right in saying that these characters, except Jesus, are sinners like us and justified only by the grace of Christ. So, of course, not everything they do should be imitated. And insofar as we should imitate them, we should imitate them as examples of living by faith. But, given these qualifications, we should be encouraging, not discouraging, preachers to point out parallels between the lives of these people and our lives today. Preaching this way does not deserve to be called moralism.

White House Inn (WHI), which champions the WSC perspective, responds to Frame:

Of course there are moral examples in Scripture, and Horton affirms this in his book; the point is that the Bible is to be read as an unfolding story of redemption, with Christ as the hero.  All we ask is that if you use a character as a moral or spiritual example, be sure to include not just the exemplary things that he or she did but also the tragic sins that made it necessary for even a “friend of God” or a “man after God’s own heart” to look forward to a Redeemer. Don’t stop with the example, look to where the example actually points: to Jesus Christ.  And ground your practical ethical issues in the new creation, just as the New Testament writers do. For more on the relationship between doctrine and ethics, see Horton’s People and Place.

No matter how Gospel-honoring this view may appear at first blush, it is (I believe) so demonstrably wrong that it’s hard to grasp how anyone could defend it after even a cursory investigation.  Frame is right, and it’s not hard to prove that he’s right.

Old Testament Examples

First, consider how the OT presents examples of individuals.  The OT examples (whether negative or positive examples) do not usually specify “tragic sins” in order to point to a Redeemer, certainly not in the way that the WHI rejoinder designates. WHI’s is a “theological interpretation” (Daniel P. Fuller) of the OT (imposed from somewhere else in the Bible) that the text itself simply cannot sustain.  Let me mention two prominent characters from the OT to show this.

Take Daniel, for starters.  Daniel is not offered as an example in order to elicit the contemporary application that his “tragic sins . . . made it necessary for even a ‘friend of God’ or a ‘man after God’s own heart’ to look forward to a Redeemer.”  Daniel was incontestably a sinner who needed, like all other sinners, a Redeemer, but to exclude his sinfulness in using him as an example today is not to do disservice to the OT texts.  It’s not his sinfulness or need for a Redeemer (which no one denies) that the OT saw fit to highlight, and neither should we.  Rather, it is Daniel’s wisdom, prevailing prayer, and fidelity to God under great pressure that strike us as exemplary.  The fact is that the OT does not offer any “tragic sins [of Daniel] that made it necessary …  [for him] to look forward to a Redeemer.”  No doubt Daniel was tragically sinful, but that’s not how the OT depicts him, and there’s no indication that that is what we are supposed to stress in considering his example.

Now, how about the other end of the moral spectrum?   In the book of Proverbs we encounter the harlot who seduces the foolish, unwary young man (ch. 7).  Unlike Daniel, she’s a patently negative example (full of “tragic sins”), yet nowhere does the writer suggest that the godly recourse for the harlot — or the young man — is to “look … to a Redeemer.”  Of course, their only hope in life and death is Jesus as their Redeemer, but that’s not the suggested recourse rooted in the OT text.  Rather, the harlot is called (implicitly) to recall the covenant with her God (see 2:17), and the young man is charged (explicitly) to avoid this ungodly woman (7:25).

Old Testament Examples in the New Testament

Second, consider how the NT interprets examples from the OT.  We need not guess at how the NT writers and speakers might have drawn lessons from the OT. Despite intense scholarly debate over the hermeneutics assumed by the NT writers and speakers, they furnish evidence of their hermeneutics in their exemplary use of the OT. Here we find that, whatever else we may say about their “hermeneutical method” in employing the OT, they did not always (or even usually) use OT examples to teach “the tragic sins that made it necessary for even a ‘friend of God’ or a ‘man after God’s own heart’ to look forward to a Redeemer.”

Think of Job, an enigmatic but striking OT character. When James refers to this godly man (5:11), he enlists him as an example of patience and perseverance: “Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end [intended by] the Lord — that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.”  James does not enlist Job in order to preach the tragedy of human depravity and the consequent necessity of a Redeemer, but rather to teach the promise of God’s blessing to those who persevere under extreme duress.

Next, and staying with the book of James, what about Elijah?  In the midst of an exhortation to fervent prayer (5:13–18), James enlists as an example this great prophet, when he prayed for God to withhold rain on an idolatrous Israel and then later to unleash from the clouds this life-nourishing blessing when the nation repented.  James does not even hint that Elijah’s “tragic sins … made it necessary for [him] to look forward to a Redeemer,” though no one dare dispute that Elijah was tragically sinful or that he would have perished eternally apart from faith in the coming Jesus Christ.

Finally, examine the longest sustained exemplary use of the OT in the NT, Hebrews 11. Here is a catalog of examples documenting the necessity of faith.  Yet the specific object of faith is not Jesus as the Redeemer, but God as the Rewarder of those who seek and persevere (v. 6). The writer of Hebrews holds up these OT saints as examples to his audience whose faith is flagging under persecution (10:32–39).  He’s saying, “Hang in there, just like your godly forefathers did, and God will reward you in the end, just as he did them.”  There’s not the least hint that human depravity and the necessity of trusting Jesus as Redeemer are the exemplary uses to which the writer put these OT characters.  He simply didn’t use the OT in that way — and neither should we assume that this use is illegitimate if we imitate it in our preaching and teaching today.

There are OT examples used in the NT which do stress salvation from tragic sin in the form of Jesus our Redeemer — Abraham and David come immediately to mind (Rom. 4), but we must never suppose that we are guilty of “moralizing” (as Mike Horton charges) if we do not unvaryingly employ OT examples to exhibit tragic human sinfulness and the necessity of a Redeemer.

Does the OT not testify of Jesus Christ?  It incontestably does (Jn. 5:39).  But that doesn’t mean that all the OT examples are given to exhibit their “tragic” sinfulness that renders necessary a Redeemer.  We need to use OT examples as the OT invites us to use them, and in many cases that use is a simple (or complex!) moral imperative that does not include the Gospel in the specific manner that Horton and WHI advise.  It may be true, then, that broadly conceived, “[T]he Bible is to be read as an unfolding story of redemption, with Christ as the hero”; but we do not honor the Bible as a story of redemption when we use examples to teach lessons not explicated or implied in the text.

If, therefore, by “moralizing,” Horton and the WHI denote “being good” apart from the Cross and Resurrection and the Gospel, Frame and I oppose it as firmly as Horton and Co.  But if they mean by “moralizing” using the OT examples to teach moral truth without always specifying man’s tragic sinfulness and need for a Savior, we plead gulity — and also plead guilty for many of the NT writers and speakers.

We should use the Bible as the Bible invites us to use it — and not impose on every passage a “theological interpretation” — no matter how pious and Christ honoring it may appear.

The Hermeneutics of Homosexual Christianity

Posted on April 11, 2012

Fuller Seminary’s young evangelical scholar Daniel Kirk, reviewing the book Gay Conversations with God by James Alexander Langteaux, speaks of “grow[ing] in [his] understanding of the place of homosexual Christians in the body of Christ.”

There can be no doubt that homosexuals (like all other sinners) can be — and should be — converted to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.  But the notion that practicing homosexuals stand within the body of Christ (and I’m assuming Dr. Kirk is using this expression to denote actual soteric inclusion in Christ’s body, as opposed to objective inclusion in Christendom by baptism) stands in radical contrast to 1 Cor. 6:9–10, where we read:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals [malakos], nor sodomites [arsenokoites] nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.

Malakos refers principally to male prostitutes, and arsenokoites to homosexuals as a class.  Paul’s point is quite clear: those whose lives are dominated by these sins (like the sins of fornication, covetousness and drunkenness, which he does not class as less spiritually fatal than homosexuality) have no part in Christ’s kingdom.

Paul goes on to write, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (v. 11) clearly suggesting that some of his Corinthian readers had been homosexual but had been washed of this (and other) sin and declared righteous on the basis of the atoning work of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.  His point is that homosexuals can — and should — be converted but that in conversion, they leave their homosexual life (and their covetous and drunken life) behind.

Nor does Paul indicate that that these sins may never creep back into the believer’s life.  The apostle who wrote Romans 6–8 would hardly suggest that sin longer has a place in the Christian’s life, which is a continual spiritual struggle.  But it is a struggle that Christians are expected gradually to overcome in the Holy Spirit’s power, and if one professes faith but drifts back into an unrepentant, sin-dominated life, he can expect nothing but spiritual death (Rom. 6:21; 8:6, 9, 13).

Because Professor Kirk is a trained NT scholar and in fact a specialist in Pauline theology, we should not be surprised, given his comments cited above, that he has been “wrestling with the question of [the permissibility of] homosexuality.” For the fact is that not once in Paul’s writings — or the rest of the Bible — would one get the impression that practicing homosexuals (like practicing extortioners and idolaters and drunkards) can expect anything but God’s judgment, and certainly not soteric inclusion in Christ’s body.

The Hermeneutical Twist

Daniel offers an interesting twist in his hope that God will in the end bring persistent homosexuals into his body while they continue in their homosexuality:

At the end [of my investigations], while coming to a tradition[al] position about male and female as God’s intention for sexual intercourse, I left the door open like this: God can surprise us.

In particular, I pointed to the issue of circumcision in the NT, where a clear commandment, pertaining to participation in the covenant promises of Abraham, was overturned. God told Peter, “I have made this clean.” At least in theory, it might not be the case that the Biblical stricture has the last word.

In short, Daniel argues, since God canceled a clear command from the OT in the NT, maybe he will cancel the prohibition against homosexuality, too.

This is a wishful example of category confusion if there ever was one.  In Romans 4:1–12 Paul contends that Abraham was given the rite of covenant circumcision after his justification precisely to exhibit that God’s comprehensive covenant plan was designed to include the entire world, not just the Jews.  Circumcision was a temporary rite to mark out covenant inclusion in the OT — and it was always intended to be a temporary rite and one day to be replaced.  Its obsolescence was built in.

This is why the food-cleaning episode in Peter’s vision recorded in Acts 10 to which Daniel refers specifies laws of the old covenant designed to erect a barrier between Jew and Gentile.  Those laws have been canceled — and in the redemptive-historical plan of God, were always designed to be canceled.

This is far from the case with the universal moral stipulations of the old covenant, including the prohibition of drunkenness and homosexuality.  And this explains why in Romans 1:24–27 Paul identifies homosexuality as the ultimate sin of an apostate human race which, along with other sins, renders one worthy of death (v. 32).

Of course, once we amble down the road of the hope that God might once day cancel his prohibition against homosexuality and allow practicing homosexuals into the body of Christ, we might walk a little further and suggest he might also change his mind and welcome unrepentant, persistent pederasts, child molesters, rapists and murderers into the family of God.  At that point, it is not clear what role repentance or sanctification — or, indeed, salvation from sin — has to play in the Biblical conception of salvation.

Dr. Kirk has already made clear that the OT law is not binding on anyone today and is therefore, in a purely denotative sense, a classic antinomian, and in stating that “we [Christians] do not do anything or adopt anything simply because it is in the Bible, but always as the people whose OT Bible story has found a surprising climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus” might wish to explain how specifically we might discover God’s ethical stipulations in the “surprising climax” — apart, of course, from God’s written revelation.  Perhaps these stipulations will dissolve into a subjective hope that “it might not be the case that the Biblical stricture has the last word,” and we simply can devise our own system of ethics.

This was the position uttered many years ago in David Comstock’s Gay Theology Without Apology.  David counseled his fellow homosexuals in the church to quit trying to reconcile their practices with the Bible, which clearly and unreservedly condemned them.  Rather, he suggested they adopt an epistemology and hermeneutics of subjectivity — allowing ethics to rise from within themselves and not imposed by external authority.

It was, at least, an honest strategy in that it did not attempt to enlist the Bible on its side.

Dr. Kirk, too, is honest in implicitly acknowledging the Bible’s seemingly ubiquitous opposition to homosexuality.

One only wishes that his wishes would be in harmony with God’s written revelation — and not for a scenario that abandons the universal ethical stipulations of God’s holy Word.

Why Christians Celebrate Easter

Posted on April 4, 2012

This Sunday is Easter. Easter is the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Bible makes very clear that on the third day after Christ’s death, He rose bodily from the tomb and showed Himself to His disciples. To those who affirm the authority of the Bible, this is not a matter of conjecture, but of certainty. It is, moreover, of crucial importance. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 15 the apostle Paul makes clear that our Lord’s resurrection is a central component of the Gospel. If Jesus Christ did not rise bodily from the dead, Paul tells us, then our faith is in vain.

For this reason, orthodox Christians of all groups and denominations have historically celebrated Easter. Why was Jesus Christ’s resurrection so significant?

Messiah

For one thing, it proved Him to be the Messiah. Most Jews at the time believed in a coming Messiah, the great Redeemer of Israel, as the Old Testament had predicted; but, like most Jews today, they did not believe that Jesus Christ was that Messiah. This is one main reason why they cooperated with the Romans in crucifying Him. But a minority of Jews, and increasingly many Gentiles, correctly identified Jesus Christ as the Messiah. This is just what Jesus Himself taught about Himself. Jesus Christ’s resurrection verified his messianic claims. He had predicted that He would rise from the grave, and His resurrection validated His messiahship.

Victory

Second, Christ’s resurrection signaled His triumph over Satan, sin, and death. In the Garden of Eden, God had threatened death to Adam as a penalty for sin. Paul taught that the “wages [payment] of sin is death.” Christ came into the world to put away sin. In His death, Jesus Christ paid the penalty for man’s sin. He was a sacrifice, or substitute, for sinners. In this way, he paid for their sins. He released the stranglehold by which sin gripped mankind. His resurrection was both a proof and a continuation of this victory over sin. Death did not have power over Him, because He had defeated sin, which gave death its power. He had to die in order to pay the penalty for sin; but He could not remain dead, because He had destroyed the power of sin in His very death.

Exaltation

Third, our Lord’s resurrection was the initial phase of His present exaltation. This is made abundantly clear in the apostle Peter’s message in Acts chapter 2. God demonstrated Jesus Christ’s Lordship when he raised His Son from the dead. Christ ascended into heaven and presently sits on the right hand of God the Father. Here he reigns as a Sovereign. The German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has suggested that Christ’s resurrection secures the universalism of the Faith. In the Old Testament, godly religion was limited largely to faithful Jews. As a result of Christ’s death and resurrection, however, all races and nationalities can now come into the Faith, if they trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. There is no longer a special place for race or nationality.

Christ is not only Savior; He is also Lord. And He can be Savior precisely because He is Lord. Man’s only eternal hope is salvation in Jesus Christ, the resurrected, living Savior and Lord. He reigns presently over the entire earth. All those who place faith in him are translated into His spiritual kingdom.

Kingdom

This kingdom is not just heavenly. It has drastic implications for the present life. Our Lord’s goal is not simply to prepare man for heaven, but to progressively redeem man and the rest of His creation. Paul tells us that Christ will reign upon His throne until all of His enemies are subdued. This is not some sort of utopian political program, but the spiritual work of the Gospel in the hearts of redeemed man. Jesus Christ subdues man not by the power of the sword or guns, but by the gentle, loving power of the gospel. This re-orients men’s present lives, and little by little they re-orient society itself. This a chief work of the present, resurrected Christ. It is not limited to a future heavenly home for the redeemed (blessed though this is), but it is a work of present redemption of cosmic scope.

These things, and much more, we Christians celebrate this Easter.

Transformation by Resurrection

Posted on April 1, 2012

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.

Romans 6:1-10

 

Paul has just been teaching that Jesus is running up the score on the Devil.  Where sin abounded, grace abounded much more (Rom. 5:20).  In other words, where there’s lots of sin, God not just forgives that sin (if we repent, of course) but showers His grace and obliterates that sin.

But people might get the idea that, since lots of our sin elicits a shower of grace, why not sin more and more so that God can shower His grace more and more?  “This grace is so great, let’s just keep sinning so we can get more grace.”  Then, sin might end up being a good thing after all, since it highlights God’s grace.

Paul’s answer (v. 1 ) is, well … no.   God’s grace overwhelms our sin, but please understand one important thing: God’s grace isn’t designed just to forgive sin; God’s grace is designed ultimately to get rid of sin.  Paul’s whole point early in Romans is how God gets rid of man’s sin.  God’s not just trying to forgive sin; His objective is to destroy sin.  Sin destroys man, and God — by His grace — destroys sin.  The goal of grace is to destroy sin, not just forgive it.[1]  (This is why sanctification is no less important than justification, and you can never have one without the other.[2])

We read in Titus 2:11-12: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age . . . .”

So, if there’s anybody that says, “Well, I know sin is bad, but I can keep sinning since God’s grace will always forgive me,” he or she is on the road to destruction.  That’s not grace; that’s a disgrace.   “Shall we sin that grace may abound?  May it never be!”

And in saying no, Paul brings up one of the most remarkable truths in all the Bible.  It’s this: that when Jesus died on the Cross and rose from the grave, in some sense we died and rose with Him.  Remarkable.  What does this mean?  Paul is saying that what died when Jesus died was the power of sin over Jesus, and what came alive when Jesus rose was the great new power of righteousness (vv. 6 and 10).  And we died to sin and we rose in righteousness right along with Him.

It’s hard to tell you how momentous this teaching is.  We’ll get back to it in a minute.

But first, Paul brings up baptism.  He’s not trying to give some sort of “baptismal theology.”  He’s trying to make a bigger point, and baptism helps him make it.

When you’re baptized, you’re baptized into something.  For instance, you remember John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, who baptized Jesus?  Well, when you are baptized into someone’s name, you really say that you’re becoming that person’s disciple (Ac. 19:3).  The men who were baptized in the name of John were baptized to become John’s disciples or followers.  When you are baptized in the name of Jesus, you publicly say you become His followers.  Baptism is a public attestation of discipleship.

But Christian baptism in water signifies something deeper.  It signifies union with Jesus Himself.  You see, when we trust Jesus, we are united to Him.   But becoming a part of Him means to share in His death and resurrection.

The big issue is not the baptism in water.  It’s like circumcision in the OT.  Baptism is supposed to signify something else, a deeper reality.   Baptism in water (as we saw in the preceding chapter) signifies our union with Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection.

This is why the Baptists believe in baptism by immersion:  you are immersed, laid out and then brought up out of the water.  I’m not persuaded by their view, but it does make a good point: baptism signs our union with Jesus in His death and resurrection.  This is where Paul gets really interesting.

Now, remember from Romans chapters 1-3 that the big deal for Paul is how God is going to overcome all this sin that has infested the world.  Because of Adam and Eve’s sin, the world has turned into this big, poison-infested swamp.  We’re in it, and this fetid swamp-water gushes over us and dirties us, and it influences all we do.  In fact, the swamp water comes from our own insides — our own sin pollutes all the worldly swamp we’re swimming in.

How God Gets Rid of Sin

The big question for Paul is how God gets rid of the poison in the swamp.  That answer has two parts.  First, recall that God justifies us in the blood of Jesus.  Jesus took our place on the Cross.  He bore our penalty.  We no longer will face punishment for our sin since Jesus was punished in our place.  God has justified us by faith — we trust in Jesus.  “Justification by faith alone”[3] (Rom. 4:5).  So now our guilt before God is wiped away in the blood of Jesus.  The penalty of sin is done away in God’s court.[4]

But man’s problem isn’t just the guilt of sin.  Man’s problem is the pollution and corruption of sin. Sin pollutes the swamp.  How does God clean up the swamp?

By the resurrection of Jesus.  That’s what the next few chapters of Romans are all about.  It’s not enough to be justified by the death of Jesus.  We have to be cleaned up by the life of Jesus.

So, what’s the big deal about this?  It’s this: Jesus’ resurrection changed Him.  And in getting to this, we’re getting to Paul’s major point. Jesus himself was transformed when He rose from the dead (as Richard Gaffin has so insightfully noted[5]).  When Jesus died, He died in weakness; but He was raised in power (1 Cor. 15:42-45).

In other words, Jesus’ earthly existence was not His resurrection existence.  Today, Jesus is not the same as He was when he walked on the earth and died on the Cross.  It’s the same Jesus, but He is a changed Man.

And because Jesus is a changed man, since we are united to Him in His resurrection, we are changed men and women.  That is how God changes us. God changes us by having changed Jesus.

Think hard about this.  When Jesus died, He was bound by sin.  Sin had power over Him — not His sin, of course, but ours.  Notice v. 9.  Before Jesus rose, sin and death had power over Him.  Jesus was enslaved to the power of sin — not His own sin, of course, but ours.  He carried our sin, our grief and sorrows (Is. 53).  His life was one of weakness and illness and weariness and tragedy and loneliness — the life of sin-bearing.  Sin, our sin, which He carried during His earthly life, had power over Him.

This is the earthly Jesus, the Son of God, Whom we read about in the Gospels.  This is the life of Jesus all the way to the Cross and to the tomb in which He was buried.   If you want to know the “life of Christ” according to Paul, it was a life of weakness, grief, burdens, illness, hardship — on the Cross, it was even a life separated from the Father, Who abandoned His own Son, the Son Who carried our sins.

This is the earthly life of Jesus Christ that we read about in the Bible.

The momentous teaching of Romans 6, 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 5 is that in that empty tomb 2000 years ago, Jesus left that life behind.  Jesus was transformed.

Let me explain further.  Just as the Son of God entered a new mode of existence — a new way of living — when He was conceived in Mary’s womb, so He entered a new mode of existence — a new way of living — when He rose from the dead.  When Jesus came to earth to be born, He laid aside His way of life with the Father (Phil. 2:5-8).  He gave up the glories of Heaven for a life of suffering and humiliation — for us.  When He was conceived in the womb and born in Bethlehem, He abandoned His previous way of life for a life of sin-bearing and weakness and loneliness and defeat.  He assumed a new, humble mode of existence.

We must understand, similarly, that when Jesus rose from the grave, He abandoned that humble, earthly way of life for a new life.  He was sown in weakness; He was raised in power.   He gave up His life of sin-bearing and weakness and loneliness and defeat for a life of power and joy and communion and victory.  The old Man Jesus became the New Man Jesus.  Jesus had an old man and a new man (Paul’s language) just like we do.  And the old Man Jesus is gone forever.

Paul makes much the same point in 2 Corinthians 5:16-17, where He’s talking about the resurrection.  He says that even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, that is, in a natural way, yet now we don’t know him that way any longer.  We cannot know Christ as we once knew him.  He has changed, and we have changed.

If you want to know the Jesus that now exists, read the book of Revelation, not the Gospels.  In Revelation, He is the conquering King, progressively beating down the old dragon (Satan); punishing His enemies on earth who are at war with Him; and delivering His people, who love and obey Him.  He is not just the Lamb Who had been slain but the Lion Who flexes his authority over the earth.  He is the Jesus at whose holy, horrifying presence John fell down as one dead.

This Jesus — not the Jesus of the Gospels — is the Jesus alive today.

Jesus’ New Life and Ours

This fact has staggering implications for Paul.  It means that since Jesus has a new mode of existence, a new life, we do also.  We are united to Him, so when He died to sin, we died to it also.  When He rose to righteousness, we rose also.  Why is it necessary to be united with Jesus?  Because that is God’s way of destroying sin!  Read v. 6 carefully.

Understand, therefore: we can longer encounter — no longer have a personal relationship with — the crucified Lord.  We can only encounter and relate to and love and befriend the crucified Lord in His resurrected state.  Think of it.  What kind of existence does Jesus have today?  Can He die? (v. 9).  Can His life today be filled with sin-bearing, sorrow, loneliness and weakness?  No, it cannot.  Well, then neither must ours.  That’s Paul’s whole point in this section.

Jesus calls us to take up our cross daily and follow Him (Lk. 9:23).  Paul says that he dies daily (1 Cor. 15:31).  And in passages like Matthew 10:38, 2 Corinthians 1:5-7, 4:10, Philippians 3:10, and Colossians 1:24, we are informed that our present life must include suffering, just as our Lord’s earthly life did.  But for the Christian, there can be no death without a resurrection, just as for Christ there could not be.  Every death entails a resurrection, including our future physical death and future resurrection.  But in the present life, you cannot die every day to sin and self without also being resurrected to righteousness and power and hope and joy and glory and victory.

Christians do not live the crucified life; they live the resurrection life.

What does this mean?  It means that when we suffer, when we are lonely, when we are ill, when we are weak, we can appeal to Jesus, yes, but only to the Jesus Who lives today in constant victory over loneliness, suffering, illness, weakness.  In other words, we cannot encounter a Jesus Who knows only loneliness, suffering, illness, weakness, because that Jesus no longer exists.  We can only encounter a Jesus Who has defeated all of these.  And if we are united to Him, we have also defeated them.  We simply must live a life of resurrection — dead to sin, alive to Jesus (vv. 11-12).  There is no other Christian life.

The wife of the best man in my wedding is a remarkable woman.  I have known her for 40 years.  Months after they were married, she and my best man were T-boned by a drunk driver.  He was thrown clear, but her backbone was crushed.  She was paralyzed and has been a paraplegic for over 30 years.  I knew her when she was a teenager in full bloom and health.  I cannot know Tina that way anymore.  She is a new and different woman.  Her life has been transformed.

In the same way, I cannot know the “old” Jesus that walked the earth.  I can only know the “new” Jesus that rules in Heaven (1 Cor. 15:47-49).

To those of you who want to know Jesus in His pain and suffering and agony and weakness, who want Jesus to join you in wallowing in your self-doubt and failure and weakness, who desire for Him to be your partner in misery: You’re too late; you missed Him; you’re 2000 years too lateThat Jesus has been transformed.  He is now the Lord of glory, not the Jesus of the earth.

John on the island writes of this Jesus, quoting Him: “I [am] he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore.”

Conclusion

What does this mean for you and me?  It means that when we come to Jesus for empathy and care and help (Heb. 4:14-16), we can come only to Jesus the Victor, not Jesus the Victim.  He can identify with our weaknesses and sorrows ands temptation, but He cannot identify with us in defeat — only in victory.  He can no longer identify with the three Hebrew boys who might perish in the fire; He can only identify with three Hebrew boys who are victorious over the fire.

Your way of thinking and mine must be dominated daily by this one fact — the Lord we love and serve is the Risen Lord, the Lord of victory and power and hope and joy and transformation.  There is no other Lord.

Jesus is incapable of commiserating with a life of defeat.  He can only lead us from defeat to victory. Jesus knows no other way.

Too many Christians live as though Jesus is still buried in the ground.   But that Jesus is gone forever.  There is no other Jesus to love and serve.  The Risen Lord is the only Lord there is.  The victorious Lord is only Lord there is.  The joyous Lord is the only Lord there is.  The powerful Lord is only Lord there is.

It is this Lord to Whom we are united.

Paul’s point: we can live the Christian life only by union with this Jesus, not the Jesus of Bethlehem or Nazareth or even Golgotha, but the Jesus of the empty tomb.

Therefore, according to Paul, there is no other Christian life possible except the life of victory and joy and power and hope and worldwide transformation (1 Cor. 15:56-58; 1 Jn. 5:4).

This is the Risen Jesus we serve, and there is simply no other Jesus.


[1] Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2000), 104.

[2] Alister McGrath, Justification by Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), ch. 2.

[3] G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), ch. 7.

[4] Leon Morris, The Atonement (Leicester, England: InterVarsity, 1983), ch. 8

[5] Richard Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978, 1987), 78-92.