Book Plunge: Protestants and Catholics

What do I think of Peter Toon’s book published by Servant Books? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Discussions about Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism was never something I really wanted to get into. I have been a subscriber of Mere Christianity for several years and been one wanting to look at defending the essentials. What changed is when my wife started asking questions and I realized if she’s doing this, I need to start looking into this. I asked a friend fluent on the issues for a good book on the topic and was recommended Peter Toon’s book.

Toon writes from a Protestant perspective, but his writing is friendly and he shows problems each side has with the other and ways that both could handle things better. There is no hint of anything that says that Catholics are an apostate church or anything like that. There is nothing saying that Protestantism is where the action is and we have it all together on our end. He points to statements made by both Protestants and Catholics that are good and that are problematic He points to honest concerns that both have about the other.

He covers the main issues as well. Not everything, but some of them. Authority is a big one. When I encounter Catholics, many of them say that it’s not really possible to understand the text of Scripture without the magisterium. Protestants reply that the meaning is in the text. Catholics say they gave the canon of Scripture. Protestants say canonicity lies in the books and the church discovered that rather than created it.

Authority I think could be the biggest issue. Where does the authority lie? This is the issue that leads to Sola Scriptura. Protestants say that the tradition cannot be known to be accurate, but we can study the Scripture and know that this is what the apostles said. Catholics see the tradition as being based in apostolic succession and thus reliable.

Other issues come up too such as justification. This is likely also before the understanding of the New Perspective on Paul so that isn’t a big debate in the book, but it was a major issue. Fortunately, I do think Protestants and Catholics are starting to come together to discuss these issues more.

Sacraments are also an issue. Protestants tend to only recognize baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Catholics recognize more. There are also differences on how the Lord’s Supper is to be seen. Is it transubstantiation or real presence or is it something else?

Mary is one of the last topics covered. Catholics often see themselves as defending the mother of God and upholding her honor and such. Protestants look more and say that it seems to border on idolatry to them. Unfortunately, Protestants then go and don’t seem to pay any attention to Mary. While we can think Catholics give too much honor, let us not be guilty of giving too little.

One nice appendix also in the book is a letter John Wesley wrote to a Roman Catholic. It is a letter seeking reconciliation and focusing on what is agreed on. Many of us do hope that one day there can be reconciliation. I am not sure how it is possible, but I can hope.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

What Is The Foundation?

What is the centerpiece of the Gospel? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Not too long ago, I wrote a blog post that was looking at a critique of the New Perspective on Paul. While I don’t sign on the dotted line yet on the NPP, I am certainly open to it and think it makes some cogent points. One reason I wrote it is also because of a claim I hear often that justification is the Gospel.

Of course, some people will immediately get defensive hearing that. Am I saying that justification is not important? Not at all. It is important that we are forgiven and that forgiveness is by grace through faith. What has to be asked though is if that is what our faith is built on?

When I go to bed at night, normally I read a short section of Scripture if I’m reading a narrative, like a Gospel, but if not, just a couple of verses to think about. Last night I did three to finish off Romans 4.  So what did I read?

The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

Please note what is necessary for our justification. It was the resurrection of Jesus. Just dying on the cross was not enough. As Paul says, if Christ is not raised, you are still in your sins.

Part of the problem I have with the idea that justification is the Gospel is that justification is a result of something else happening. That something else is the primary thing. That is the message that changed the world. If that did not happen, we would not be able to talk about justification. That primary thing is the resurrection.

A secondary problem is that justification is important, but it also doesn’t go far enough. We can celebrate that we are forgiven, but God did much more than just forgive us. He could have forgiven us without offering us eternal life for instance, but He did do that. With every step, He could stop, but He doesn’t. As Luke 12:32 tells us, it is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

The kingdom is sadly lacking in our Gospel messages today. Jesus did not say as much about justification as He did about the Kingdom of God, but guess which one we spend the most time talking about today? Very few people have any idea of a doctrine of the kingdom. It’s sadly true that we often treat the Gospels as appetizers and the main course are the epistles of Paul. This is why it can often be asked if Jesus taught Paul’s Gospel. The more important question we should ask is if Paul taught Jesus’s Gospel, which he did of course.

If we want to see what’s further ahead, let’s see what Paul does say in 2 Cor. 5:19.

For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.

Sure. The forgiveness of sins is in there, but the reconciliation is with the world. The world is not as it should be and that is to be corrected. We can be forgiven, but even forgiven people will still die. Death is still the enemy to overcome. Is God going to let the world be a casualty? Did the evil one ruin the world so much that it cannot be redeemed and it will fall from the purposes God created for it?

Absolutely not. The resurrection is as it were uncreation working backwards. The path of destruction is stopped and the path of restoration begins. Let us celebrate justification, but we are not the end of it all. Everything is to be reconciled. This does not mean universalism as some people will not be reconciled due to their own will nor will demons or the devil, but all that submit to God will be.

Yet always remember, whatever your stance on justification, it’s not possible without the resurrection. The resurrection message is the Gospel. The king has come and He is taking His throne. That is the cause of everything else. Let’s not confuse the effect with the cause.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

A Response to Phil Johnson on N.T. Wright

What do I think of Johnson’s critique of Wright? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

ETA: My first writing of this said R.C. Sproul. I was notified that this was by Phil Johnson so I have done necessary edits..

When I was in seminary, for a class on salvation for systematic theology proper, we were assigned to read The Future of Justification by John Piper. This was a response to N.T. Wright’s work on the topic of justification. I had heard about it some, but I never took the time to really look at it. As I read Piper, he would frequently quote Wright. When I read those quotes of Wright I would think “That certainly seems like a plausible way of looking at it more in line with Second Temple Judaism.” Before too long after finishing that book, I got Wright’s book on the topic and went through it and while I don’t sign on the dotted line yet, I do find it quite persuasive.

A friend asked me about this all yesterday. He has a fear that Wright has a position here that is heretical. Our discussion, which was friendly and I do like that, ended with him sending me this from Phil Johnson. So let’s take a look at this piece.

Johnson starts off with glowing praise of Wright and what a great scholar he is. Before too long, the clouds darken. Wright has a position that is not evangelical at all obviously. He has a position that denies Sola Fide.

Let me point out early on then that I am not a Calvinist. You can hold that against me if you want, but I’m just not, and that was before reading Wright even. I have never subscribed to Calvinism. I just do not find it a persuasive position on the Bible.

So let’s gon on and quote Johnson.

Wright begins by giving a sketch of the pedigree of twentieth-century scholarship on Paul. He acknowledges that the New Perspective is deeply rooted in the work of a line of scholars who were by no means evangelicals. Indeed, most of them were hostile to the evangelical perspective. He lists, for example, Albert Schweitzer, W. D. Davies, Ernst Käsemann, and E.P. Sanders as the main influences in developing the New Perspective.

Schweitzer’s contribution was to emphasize the fact that Paul was a Hebrew, not a Hellenist. Paul thought in Jewish categories, not Greek ones. Schweitzer therefore argued that the traditional Protestant emphasis on justification by faith missed the heart of Pauline theology. Paul’s emphasis was on our union with Christ [true enough], but Schweitzer argued that it is therefore wrong to think of justification by faith as a forensic declaration, the way historic Reformed and Protestant theologians always have. Here’s how Wright describes Schweitzer’s view on page 14: “What mattered [to Schweitzer] was being ‘in Christ’, rather than the logic-chopping debates about justification, [and therefore] one was free to live out the life of Christ in new and different ways.”

Notice, then: the historic Protestant understanding of justification by faith was under attack from the very birth of the earliest ideas that led to this new interpretation of the apostle Paul. Forensic justification was denied in favor of living out the life of Christ.

Please note that part of the problem with this and with later looks is that this is simply poisoning the well. These people were not evangelicals. So what? It’s good to read critics of our position. They can point us to our blind faults. If the evangelical perspective has not been correct all these years, maybe it’s the others who can show us that who are just as much trained in the field as we are.

What has to be asked is can the data be separated from those who hold it? If the answer is yes, then there is no problem, and I don’t see any other answer. Data is data regardless of who discovers it. We also have no reason to think Wright would be wanting to be in line with someone just because of who they are. Wright has in fact written a leading evangelical defense of the resurrection of Jesus. (You know, the central fact of Christian teaching.)

Wright’s point seems to be that the New Perspective on Paul has an impressive scholarly pedigree. What I want to point out is that these views are rooted in the kind of scholarship that has historically been hostile to evangelical distinctives, such as the authority and inspiration of Scripture. It is ironic, and I think not without significance, that the earliest exponents of this new expertise on Paul were all men who were happy to discard whatever portions of the Pauline writings did not fit their theories. So you have experts on Paul who reject large portions of what Paul actually wrote.

Okay. Did Wright do this? Has Wright jettisoned parts of Paul just because they disagree with his theories? It reminds me of how for a time thinkers in the medieval period were hesitant to take the words of Aristotle. He had been used by the Muslims after all. It was Aquinas who took this information and said it could be used by the church and in essence Christianized Aristotle. Did he take every belief Aristotle held? No. Still, he took his system of thought and said that it was in line with Christianity. He was also right.

I think Wright has done similar. He has not thrown out the material because it comes from non-evangelicals. Instead, he has looked at the data, said they might be on to something, and figured how it does work better with the Pauline corpus in his mind than the traditional interpretation. If this is so, the point of origins is irrelevant and just a big genetic fallacy.

Wright also claims that our misunderstanding of Judaism reached its zenith with Luther and the Reformers—in other words, historic Protestantism. Wright thinks evangelicals in particular have perpetuated the misunderstanding because of our systematic and theological approach to interpreting the New Testament. We’re guilty of thinking in Greek categories rather than Jewish ones. We have been too prone to read Augustine’s conflicts with Pelagius and Luther’s conflict with Rome back into the biblical text, and that has corrupted and prejudiced our understanding of the Jewish culture surrounding Paul.

Note what Johnson is saying about Wright. It is not our misunderstand of Scripture. It is our misunderstanding of Judaism. That did affect how we read Scripture. I think the Reformers were right in their stance on a problem in the RCC back in their day. They looked at the issue of their day and I think they gave the right answer. The problem was they also looked at what Paul was saying and thought Paul was dealing with the same issue. It was understandable why they would think that, but were they right? That is the key question.

For instance, if we look at the Gospels, we don’t find this being discussed that much. There is not really discussion on justification. It could be damaging that one time Jesus is asked about this topic, he tells the questioner to follow the commandments and then go and sell everything he has and give to the poor. He hardly gave the answer of justification by grace through faith.

Does that mean that it is false? No. It means that Jesus knew the heart of this person and this person was not willing to sacrifice to be a disciple. Jesus often speaks about the cost of discipleship. The strong words in Luke are highly misunderstood but they are the ones about hating your own mother and father and brother and sister. It doesn’t mean to literally hate, but Jesus is saying “Don’t become a disciple unless you are willing to give up everything.”

And let’s face it, we’re all still working on that one!

Let’s go to Jesus’s message in Mark. He starts by saying the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel. Question. What was He telling people to believe? If He was saying justification by grace through faith, on what grounds? No one other than Jesus had the foggiest idea that He would die on a cross and rise again, yet there was something in Jesus’s message to already be believed. What was it?

His baptism had had Him displayed as the Son of God which would be implicit evidence that He is the Messiah. The good news then is that the Kingdom of God is here. God is becoming king. Jesus regularly spoke about the Kingdom of God in His messages. Jesus spoke of it often. We barely say a word about it in church today.

How does this tie in with Paul? Go to 1 Cor. 15. Paul says that the Gospel is that Jesus Christ died and was buried and rose again for our sins. For Paul, this was the sign that the kingdom had come. Jesus being the promised Messiah meant something. The promise to the patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had come to pass. The one whom Moses wrote about had arrived. By raising Jesus from the dead, God had vindicated Him and shown that this man is His chosen king to rule the world. It was a new age. Our modern new age culture is wrong. The true new age began when Jesus was declared king of this world. Christ does not find His identity in us. We find ours in Him.

Let’s also keep in mind we have something the Reformers did not have. We have access to Jewish writings they were not aware of that have changed the way we see the culture and we can see that we were wrong in some understandings. I am sure that if the Reformers were here, they would be eagerly wanting to look at these writings and learn all they could from them and if they were wrong about something, they would want to be the first ones to know it.

Please note also that you can say all of this and still say the Reformers were right in their struggle. You can still say that faith alone is all that one needs to be saved. We will get into more of this as we go along.

He goes on to say (still on p. 32), “This point is clearly of enormous importance, but I cannot do more than repeat it in case there is any doubt: Jews like Saul of Tarsus were not interested in an abstract, timeless, ahistorical system of salvation. They were not even primarily interested in, as we say today, ‘going to heaven when they died.’” (By the way, that is a ridiculous statement, and if you want to see how ridiculous it is, read Hebrews 11:13–16. Those who had true faith were interested in going to heaven when they died. Hebrews 11:16: “they desired a better country, that is, an heavenly [one].”)

Except it’s not a ridiculous statement. What we have apparently is one text in the Bible that Johnson thinks makes his point. We don’t even have anything from Paul who this is supposed to be about. When Hebrews speaks of a heavenly country, what were they thinking? Going some place else when they died? No. They were thinking I think about God making this world His abode. This world is not an accident. It is not an afterthought.

Unfortunately, we have done this so much that we think going to heaven is the point of Christianity and then it’s not often so much about heaven as it is a get out of hell free card. You can have a call to salvation in a church service that talks about heaven and says absolutely nothing about the resurrection. It has no call to repentance. It says nothing about discipleship. Instead, it all becomes about how do I get to heaven.

If Johnson thinks that one passage can make something a ridiculous statement, then I have one passage from Jesus (Said three times) about selling all you have and giving to the poor to have eternal life. Therefore, it would be “ridiculous” to think that Jesus would believe in justification by faith. Do I think that? Not at all. I think all the passages have to be properly understood. The same with the Hebrews passage.

Johnson quotes Wright saying

Despite a long tradition to the contrary, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian or attains to a relationship with God. (I’m not even sure how Paul would express, in Greek, the notion of ‘relationship with God’, but we’ll leave that aside.) The problem he addresses is: should ex-pagan converts be circumcised or not? Now this question is by no means obviously to do with the questions faced by Augustine and Pelagius, or by Luther and Erasmus. On anyone’s reading, but especially within its first-century context, [the problem] has to do, quite obviously, with the question of how you define the people of God. Are they to be defined by the badges of the Jewish race, or in some other way?

At this point, the question to ask is “Is Wright right?” Let’s go back to the sources and look and see. Let’s look at those writings we have now that the Reformers did not have. Let’s look at the research. Johnson responds with

Wright is explicitly acknowledging that if the New Perspective is correct, and first-century Judaism had no issue with works-righteousness, then all the traditional interpretations of Romans, Galatians, and the other Pauline epistles must be thrown out the window, and we must go back to square one in our exegesis of the apostle Paul.

Wright’s critics, including me, have pointed out that this is a pretty audacious claim. Wright is claiming, in effect, is that he is the first person in the history of the church—or at least since the time of Augustine—who has correctly understood the apostle Paul (and hence the majority of the New Testament). Wright is pretty careful not to state explicitly that he thinks this would require a complete overhaul of Protestant confessional standards. And some of Wright’s Presbyterian advocates in America have denied with great passion that Wright’s beliefs pose any threat whatsoever to the historic Protestant creeds. But it would seem patently obvious to me that if the whole foundation of our Pauline exegesis is brought back to square one, then we can throw out every creed and systematic theology ever written by anyone who adhered to the old perspective on Paul, and start over with our theology as well. And in practice, that is precisely what is happening. That’s the very upheaval you see in the various controversies that are being addressed in this conference this weekend.

One can picture what it would be like if R.C. Johnson had been in a position of power in the RCC at the time of Luther.

“Can anyone believe this monk? He thinks he is the first one in church history for 1,500 years to truly understand the Scriptures and the rest of us have got them wrong! This is surely an audacious claim! If we follow him, we will have to go back to square one in our understanding of Paul!”

I remember years ago someone sent me a conversation with Al Mohler and others talking about Wright’s perspective. One speaker on this panel said “Wright may think he’s found something new in the Scripture, but he’s going against the tradition.” Yes. We as Protestants should have a problem with someone going with what they think they found in the Scriptures when that goes against our traditional understanding. Pardon me, but isn’t that what happened in the Reformation?

It’s happened elsewhere too. Galileo went against the tradition at the time as well. I also do think Galileo was arrogant. There was something else about him too. He was right. If we just say “Tradition!” then we always risk just being wrong. We dare not say we want skeptics to be open to Christianity if we are not open to being wrong.

We go on.

Of course, the apostle Paul uses that phrase repeatedly. In Galatians 2:16— in that one verse alone—he uses it three times: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” According to Wright, when Paul spoke of “the works of the law, he did not have in mind the moral requirements of the law of God. Rather, he was speaking of the badges of Jewish nationalism—circumcision, the dietary laws, the priesthood, the holy days, and whatnot. In other words, he’s talking about the ceremonial law. Quoting again from page 120, Wright says that the question Paul is addressing in Galatians is “the question of how you define the people of God. Are they to be defined by the badges of the Jewish race, or in some other way?”

In this, I think Wright is definitely on to something. Peter’s main issue was not what must I do to be saved. His issue was how he would be perceived by the others. People living the Gospel do not need to eat according to the Law. The Law does not show that they are Christians. It is faith in Christ. Peter’s actions were a denial of that. Peter’s salvation was never an issue.

Paul is then saying to the Galatians that the Judaizers think that to be a Christian, you must keep the law. It is not so you can be saved, but to show that you are saved. All true Christians will keep the Law. How can you recognize a Christian? He keeps the law. Unfortunately, this would catapult us right back to Judaism. How do you recognize a Jew? He keeps the law. How do you recognize a Christian? He keeps the law. Christ becomes useless then.

So what is it that sets a Christian apart? Faith in Christ. How do you know someone is a Christian? They have faith in Christ. If you want to say the law is what identifies you, then you indeed have to keep all of it.

Wright insists that in the true Pauline theology, justification by faith has almost nothing to do with a person’s standing before God, but it has everything to do with the corporate makeup of the covenant community. To quote Wright again (p. 119),

Justification” in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about “getting in,” or indeed about “staying in,” as about “how you could tell who was in.” In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.

So in Wright’s view, justification is not about how we relate to God; it’s about how ethnic and cultural groups relate to one another. Page 122: “What Paul means by justification … is not ‘how you become a Christian’, so much as ‘how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family.’ … [Justification] is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their racial differences.”

Is Wright right? I don’t think Johnson is. Wright is not saying it is about how we relate to one another. It’s about indeed who the community is. How the community treats itself is a good question, but the question is who is a part of the community. Whose community is it? The community of God.

This fits in very well with Judaism at the time. We in our world are much more individualistically based. To say to march to the beat of your own drummer and be your own man would make no sense to them. We often have the habit of reading our questions into Scripture thinking the Scripture is addressing the same questions when it is not. I think this is what is often happening in our reading of Genesis 1 as an example.

Is there no soteriological or personal dimension in Wright’s understanding of justification, then? There is, and this is one of the most troubling aspects of his work. Like many today who are proposing new understandings of justification, he bifurcates justification into immediate and future aspects, and pushes the personal and salvific dimensions of justification into the eschatalogical future, in a final judgment. Page 129: “Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly … on the basis of the entire life.”

That’s troubling for two reasons: first, it makes a person’s covenant faithfulness—obedience—the basis of final justification, thus grounding the ultimate declaration of righteousness in the believer’s own works, rather than grounding justification completely in the finished work of Christ on our behalf.

And it does no such thing whatsoever. Last I checked, we all seem to think that works are a part of the evidence of salvation. James is right. If you say you have faith and you have no works, then you do not really have faith. How is this a problem? I don’t know any evangelical who wants to say you can say the sinner’s prayer, live like a heathen, and still get eternal life at the end. Faith in Christ ought to result in some works.

And even though Wright’s defenders have tried desperately to exonerate him from this charge, it seems clear to me that throughout his book, he is selfconsciously and deliberately rejecting the main distinctive—the material principle—of the Protestant Reformation. In Luther’s words, this is the article by which the church stands or falls. In Calvin’s words, it is the principle hinge of all religion.

If Johnson thinks this is convincing, then I’ll use the same principle. It seems clear to me that Johnson has encountered a new idea and it goes against what he has always believed in his mind, so he has started pushing the panic button. I think this is also what Geisler did when Licona came out with his ideas and it is sadly a common evangelical tactic.

I also think it’s odd to say the church stands or falls by this. What happened to the resurrection? Do we really think the world was hearing in the first century “Good news! You can be justified by grace through faith!” and that was the contorversial message? The controversial message was about this dead man named Jesus who was alive and God’s Messiah through whom He would rule the world.

And you see this most clearly in the fifth distinctive of Wright’s position that I want to highlight for you. Here is idea number five, if you’re making a list of these: According to Wright, Protestant and Reformed exegetes who in the mainstream of evangelical theology have all misread what Paul meant when he spoke of “the righteousness of God.” According to Wright, divine righteousness is not an asset that can be imputed from God to the believer. It has nothing to do with virtue or excellence or moral rectitude that can be imputed. Instead, God’s righteousness is simply His covenant faithfulness. And when Paul speaks of the believer’s righteousness as a righteousness that comes from God, he is talking about covenant membership, our status in the covenant, which ultimately must be maintained by our own faithfulness.

Now if that sounds to you like implicit denial of the classic doctrine of imputation, I believe that is precisely what Wright is saying. He downplays or denies or redefines the principle of imputation at every turn. Page 98: “If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys, or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom.”

According to Wright (p. 123), 1 Corinthians 1:30 is “the only passage I know of where something called ‘the imputed righteousness of Christ,’ a phrase more often found in post-Reformation theology and piety than in the New Testament, finds any basis in the text.” Wright then goes on to argue that if we are to claim 1 Corinthians 1:30 as a proof text about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, “we must also be prepared to talk of the imputed wisdom of Christ; the imputed sanctification of Christ … “ and so on.

Say what you will about Wright; he himself makes it abundantly clear that he does not like the notion of imputation, because he does not believe divine righteousness is something that can be reckoned, or put to the account, of the believer. And he is equally silent—ominously silent—about the biblical teaching that the believer’s guilt was imputed to Christ and paid for on the cross.

We can wonder if Johnson has changed any of this since Wright has now a whole book on the atonement, but I am doubtful that he has. Wright is correct that only one text explicitly says anything like that. It’s strange that Johnson would seem to have a problem with Wright saying he only has one text that can be said to argue for this position when that’s exactly what Johnson did earlier in this article with Hebrews 11:13-16.

Therefore, he says, we have got the gospel all wrong. And he says this repeatedly. Page 60: “‘The gospel’ is not, for Paul, a message about ‘how one gets saved’, in an individual and ahistorical sense.” Page 41; here is how Wright 10 describes what he is convinced is a misunderstanding of the gospel: “In certain circles within the church … ‘the gospel’ is supposed to be a description of how people get saved; of the theological mechanism whereby, in some people’s language, Christ takes our sin and we his righteousness.”

Some people’s language”? Wright himself disdains to use such language. He is careful to insist that he is not intolerant of people who do use that language. He goes on (p. 41): “I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say ‘the gospel’. I just don’t think it’s what Paul means.”

But if that’s not what Paul means, it’s not what Scripture means. Is Wright suggesting that Protestants have historically proclaimed a “different gospel”? It would certainly be uncharacteristic of Tom Wright to anathematize anyone, but he does rather clearly imply that he thinks Protestants have been getting the gospel wrong since the 16th century.

And many Calvinists have been saying the same about others. Anybody seen that saying “Calvinism is the Gospel”? If that is really meant, then that would mean anyone who is an arminian is holding to a different Gospel. Wright has not denied the Gospel. Instead, He has broadened it. It’s not just about the individual. It’s about the community of God and God Himself.

Johnson says Wright thinks we’ve been getting it wrong for a long time. So did Martin Luther. If we followed Johnson consistently, we would have to get rid of the Reformation.

Now I promised to give you as many biblical answers to Tom Wright’s New Perspective as time allows, and in the time that remains, that is what I want to do. Let me try to answer each one of the five ideas I have outlined with at least one or two biblical arguments:

First, there’s the notion that we have misunderstood first-century Judaism. I answer that Tom Wright has erred by lending more credence to secular scholarship than he does to the testimony of Scripture. We ought to draw our understanding of the first-century religious climate from the New Testament itself, and not from the disputed conclusions of a handful of skeptical twentieth-century scholars who refuse to bow to the authority of Scripture.

And I say Johnson has not looked at the data that has been presented. Is the data wrong because some non-Christians came up with it? Do we really want to present an echo chamber approach? We tell non-Christians they should learn from Christians and non-Christians both, but we will not do the same?

And what about Johnson? Is he going directly to Scripture? I contend that he has pointed to tradition in this piece far more than he has to Scripture. Once again, I thought the Reformation had something to do with questioning long held traditions because of the truth of Scripture, but maybe I was wrong.

And what does Scripture say about the religion of the Jews, and the Pharisees in particular? Scripture clearly teaches that their central error was that they trusted too much in their own righteousness rather than resting their faith in the Old Testament truth that God would cover them with the garment of His own righteousness. Paul says this explicitly in Romans 10:3: “They being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.” Jesus also said it repeatedly. He constantly criticized the Pharisees for trying to justify themselves. Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican? Luke 18:9 says Jesus told that parable “unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” And the whole point of Paul’s testimony in Philippians 3 was to show that he once had “confidence in the flesh”—those are Paul’s precise words in Philippians 3:4. But Paul turned from that, jettisoned his self-righteousness, regarded it as dung, and testified that his one hope now, as a Christian and a believer, was “To be found in [Christ,] not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”

Unfortunately, quoting a Scripture does not mean your interpretation of it is correct. The Jews in Romans 10 were rejecting Christ and saying “We will show our righteousness by the Law.” That would fit in just fine with what Wright says. In Luke, the Pharisee is not righteous because he keeps the law. The tax collector is because he lives by faith. Again, this is just fine with Wright. In Phillipians 3, Paul was one who kept the law blamelessly by his words, but his righteousness was not in keeping the law, but by identifying himself as a believer in Christ. Again, Wright would have no problem.

Wright tries to do away with the force of that text by removing the word righteousness, and suggesting that Paul was talking about “covenant membership.” But both the context and the very words of the passage prove that what Paul was describing was the difference between two contrasting ideas of righteousness—one he calls “my own righteousness,” and the other, an alien righteousness—the righteousness of God in Christ.

Not at all. Paul being faithful to the old covenant would not save if God had made a new covenant. The righteousness of the new is superior to the old for it is based on the fulfillment of the promises of Christ. That Johnson has not considered what someone who works to understand this can come up quickly shows me that Johnson is just pushing the panic button.

Wright is simply wrong—egregiously wrong—when he suggests that self-righteousness was not a problem in first-century Judaism.

Johnson is simply wrong—egregiously wrong—when he suggests that self-righteousness was a problem in first-century Judaism and maybe he should have read those scholars that Wright read instead of dismissing them.

By the way, Wright is making a caricature of the historic Protestant position when he suggests that most interpreters have equated first-century Judaism with Pelagianism, the notion that sinners can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and save themselves through their own works.

Just quoting this to say the irony of a caricature here is amazing.

Of course Judaism had a major emphasis on grace, and the mercy of God. The Pharisees knew the Old Testament, and the idea of grace was plainly prominent in the Old Testament. But the religion of the Pharisees, and the bulk of first-century Judaism, had corrupted the Old Testament notion of grace. Their religion wasn’t like Pelagianism, which is utterly devoid of grace. But it was much like semi-pelagianism, which has a watered-down notion of grace, and still places too much stress on human works. Semi-pelagianism suggests that grace is enough to get your foot in the door of salvation, but you have to maintain your salvation, or your covenant membership, by your own faithfulness and obedience to the law.

And Johnson bases this on….what? What scholarship on Second Temple Judaism is he reading to tell us that this is the way Jews thought? Your guess is as good as mine.

Listen, even in the way Tom Wright describes first-century Judaism, it is clear that there was a semi-pelagian tendency in that religion. And frankly, one of my great concerns with Wright and others who have followed his lead (as well as people like Norman Shepherd and the Auburn Avenue movement) is this: Their notion of “covenant faithfulness,” where a person maintains his membership in the covenant by legal means, through obedience, and looks for a final justification grounded at least partly in their own works—smacks too much of neonomian legalism for my tastes. It turns the gospel into a “new law”—a toned-down legal system where the requirements are diminished so that imperfect obedience counts as true obedience. And that makes the sinner’s own works either the ground or the instrument of final justification. That kind of thinking frankly has the stench of semi-pelagianism all over it. It is a subtle form of works-righteousness.

Except Johnson is reading his individualism into this. The Jew would not say I am doing the works of the Law so that I can be saved. They would say they are doing it because they are saved and this is what people of the covenant do. How do I know I am in the covenant? I fulfill my part of it! God is my patron! My role is to do what He has commanded me to do!

My reply is that if Wright is correct and the only issue Paul was concerned about was racial and cultural divisions in the Galatian churches and elsewhere, the force of Paul’s response is a little bit hard to understand. If Paul’s plea was merely an echo of Rodney-King theology (“Why can’t we all just get along?”) it’s hard to see why Paul himself pronounced such harsh anathemas against the Judaizers in Galatians 1. In effect, Paul banned them from the table Wright insists ought to be open to everyone who acknowledges Christ as Lord.

Actually, Paul’s response is pretty easy to understand. If the Galatians go the way they are doing, then Christ is useless because it’s being part of the community by the old standard as I said earlier. This is not about getting along. Again, Johnson has made, dare I say, a caricature, of the situation.

What about this third distinctive? Wright says we have mistaken what Paul meant by the expression “works of the law.”

Romans 3:20 alone blows that argument to smithereens. Paul says, “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”

It’s the moral law, not the ceremonial law, that puts our sin under a bright light and condemns us. Paul is not talking about ethnic badges here; he is talking about the moral demands of the law. And he is saying as plainly as possible that the law, with all its high moral standards, cannot possibly justify us, because it condemns us as sinners.

Romans 3:20 hardly blows it to smithereens. Johnson speaks about the moral law and not the ceremonial law, but we have to ask if a Jew would have made that distinction. Paul in fact in the passage that talks about the morality of those who follow the Law also talks about circumcision. Does Johnson think that circumcision is part of the moral law? Is a Gentile man immoral if he does not get circumcised?

Does the Law show what sin is? Yes. The Law then could not be the final basis for justification. It would have to be something else that would show someone is justified. That would be faith in Christ. Again, this is not a problem for Wright’s view. Johnson strikes me as someone who does not want to learn what his opponents believe. He’s quick to find something he thinks makes the case and then declares victory.

Wright’s definition of justification (as “covenant membership”) downplays and almost completely eliminates the ideas of sin and forgiveness from the doctrine of justification completely. But forgiveness and redemption from the guilt of sin are the very issues Paul is dealing with in Romans 3 and 4. And Paul’s illustrations and Old Testament proofs make it clear that what he is talking about is first of all individual, not corporate, justification. He is dealing with guilt, not merely covenant status. Romans 4:4–5: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to the one who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted [“reckoned”; “imputed to him”] for righteousness.”

Verses 6–7: “Just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, And whose sins are covered.”

There’s no way to be faithful to the meaning of that text if you try to evacuate the notions of individual guilt and forgiveness from the idea of justification.

No way? Challenge accepted!

In fact, it is quite easy to be faithful to the text. Why is Abraham cited? Abraham is exhibit A in all of these. Abraham was the friend of God. Abraham was the person God made an original covenant with. If Abraham was justified by works, then the Jews would have a case. What does the text say though? Abraham believed in God and it was credited to Him as righteousness. Abraham’s identity marker then was not circumcision. It was faith to the covenant. We today are declared righteous by faith in the covenant. The difference is we see the covenant afterward.

David says the same. There is no need for individualism here. Community minded people certainly know individuals exist. Their focus is just not on the individual. It is on the community. The group comes first and then the person comes second.

I could go on, but time is short. Let me just give you one other example, from the teaching of Jesus. That parable of the Pharisee and the publican in Luke 18 teaches the very thing N. T. Wright wants to deny about the doctrine of justification. This is the one place where Jesus expounds most clearly on the principle of justification. And he is fully in agreement with the classic Reformed interpretation of Paul. He ends that parable by saying in Luke 18:14: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

There you have the principle of justification apart from works of any kind. It deals with individual guilt and forgiveness, not merely corporate relationships. One man was justified; the other was condemned.

And this passage I also explained earlier. Each individual has to show how they are a part of the community, but the question is what establishes the community? Many of us are interested in what establishes the individual. The ancients were not.

But Scripture nonetheless does speak of the imputation of righteousness to the believer. Jesus commands us in Matthew 6:33 to “seek” God’s righteousness—a notion that doesn’t fit with the New Perspective definition. Ephesians 4:24 connects the notion of righteousness with “true holiness.” In other words, it is a extensive moral attribute, not merely “covenant faithfulness.” Any definition of righteousness that does not include those concepts is an impoverished definition.

But why not? This is again simple enough. Jesus’s point is that God will be faithful to His people. Seek that when seeking God. Remember His promises and trust Him. Ephesians is about our being faithful to the covenant on our end. Again, this is not a problem.

Righteousness is a much bigger concept than Tom Wright will acknowledge, and herein lies my chief complaint with his approach to theology: he has made righteousness a smaller concept than Scripture does. He makes sin a minor issue. He downplays the idea of atonement. He barely touches on the sinner’s need for forgiveness. He diminishes the doctrine of justification by declaring it a second-order doctrine. What he ends up with is a theology that is destitute of virtually all the lofty concepts that the Protestant Reformation recovered from the barrenness of Medieval theology.

Yes. Next we’ll be told that he kicks dogs when he walks across the street and takes candy from babies. Not at all. Johnson is pushing the panic button here. In fact, I think many on the other side diminish the resurrection by making it a second-order doctrine. Justification is a result of the resurrection. The resurrection is not the result of justification.

There is nothing in Wright’s perspective that downplays sin. Sin is the reason the Kingdom of God has to come on Earth. There is nothing that downplays forgiveness. One cannot enter the Kingdom without it. There is nothing that denies the atonement. One cannot be at peace with God without accepting His covenant.

From here we go on to a look at Steve Chalke and that this is where Wright is taking us. We will downplay sin and the atonement and everything else. If downplaying is the problem, then let me make a suggestion. Only twice in this article does Johnson mention the resurrection. When he does, he is talking about Wright’s defense of it. Nowhere in this piece does Johnson in any way tie justification to the resurrection.

Now if I was talking about justification, I would have to go to the resurrection. The cross is not what justifies us because if Jesus had remained dead, there would be no forgiveness. Jesus would have been just another sinner who died for His sins. It is because He rose from the dead that everything is different.

In fact, I’d go back even further. Too often when we give our talks about the Gospel, we start with Adam and Eve and then jump straight to Jesus. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that stuff in the middle that we call the Old Testament could be important. Just saying!

Like Johnson, I am not a prophet, but I do think I see where the wind is blowing here. We can expect that evangelicals will once again push the panic button when a new idea comes up and refuse to look at the claims and go into protection mode instead. Such is a disgrace for us. It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle it without debating it.

What do I encourage you to do? Do what should be done. Read both sides. If you think these secular scholars are just trying to undermine evangelicalism, read their work. See what they say. What is their claim? What is the data behind it? Does the data back the claim? Read Piper, but read Wright as well. Learn from all. Come to your own conclusion.

And let it be clear also I am not pronouncing any anathemas on those who disagree. I stand with any who proclaim that Jesus is the Lord of all who rose from the dead bodily. That is the essential for me. I don’t expect my theology to be right in everything. When my time for judgment comes, I will say that I placed my trust in Christ and that is all.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Got Questions On The New Perspective on Paul

Do we have a valid criticism of the New Perspective on Paul? (NPP) Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

A reader of the blog wanted to get my thoughts on an article he found online from Got Questions (GQ). He had been searching for information on the New Perspective on Paul and wanted to see what he could find. This one showed up on the first page and when I did my look, I got the same results. So let’s look at what the author of the piece has to say. Those wanting to read it can find it here. The question being asked is if the NPP is Biblical.

Any time a “new perspective” on some biblical doctrine arises, red flags should go off warning Christians of possible danger. In many cases such “new” ideas, teachings, or perspectives are not new at all. Rather, they are the same old lie from the Garden of Eden when Satan first cast doubt on God’s Word: “Did God really say…” (Genesis 3:1). In that sense, the “New Perspective on Paul” is ancient in that it tries to deny what the Scriptures clearly teach and what has been accepted by Christians for centuries. The “New Perspective on Paul” is not biblical and appears to be an attempt to redefine and even deny key biblical doctrines that are the foundation of the Christian faith.

Way to start off with both guns blazing! GQ didn’t even hesitate to start tying in the NPP with the lies of the devil. Why? Well first off, because it’s new. One can only imagine what they would have thought at the time of the Reformation. Would they have sided with Luther? Even if my readers aren’t Protestant here, it should be realized that GQ is not a Catholic ministry so they must answer this question. Would heliocentrism be considered a new perspective causing doubt on the Word of God? They do believe in the rapture. Are they not aware that historically that is a “new teaching”?

Anyway, to get back to the main point, we have already been told that the NPP is not Biblical and is an attempt to redefine core doctrines of the Christian faith. This is an interesting statement, but there’s one glaring problem. We haven’t even been told what the NPP is. We’re just told that whatever it is, it is like the ancient lie of the devil.

Sadly, however, the teachings propagated by the few who champion the “New Perspective on Paul” are gaining ground, even among evangelical churches, despite the fact that some of its leading proponents are liberal New Testament scholars from secular universities. Most well-known among the “New Perspective on Paul” proponents is N.T. Wright, a noted Bible scholar and Bishop in the Anglican Church, whose books seem to be influencing the spread of this troublesome teaching in evangelical churches.

Some of its proponents are liberal NT scholars who teach at secular universities like…..well…..we’re not told. N.T. Wright is the one mentioned here and he is hardly liberal. Wright wrote one of the leading books arguing that Jesus rose from the dead.

The heart of this teaching is that for hundreds, if not thousands, of years Christians have seriously “misunderstood” the apostle Paul and his teachings—thus the need for a new perspective on Paul. The idea that these latter-day scholars are so wise that they can figure out the correct perspective on Paul, when biblical scholars from the time of Christ on could not, is founded upon audacity and even borderline arrogance. The “New Perspective on Paul” is not unlike the Jesus Seminar group, who several years ago decided they could determine what Jesus actually said and did not say by voting on which words of Christ in the Bible should be attributed to Him and which should not. The implied arrogance of these types of “wiser than everyone else” attitudes should be clear when they claim that Christians for almost 2,000 years have been wrong about Paul.

Um. No. It’s not arrogance at all. It’s simply based on having new information that they did not have, including information found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. There’s also this head in the sand approach that new ideas cannot possibly be true. We are learning more about the world of the Bible regularly. Archaeology and other disciplines are showing us things that had been lost for centuries. This is not arrogance. Arrogance is thinking that we will not uncover anything that could change our minds.

It’s also hideous to say that this is like the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar was a group of leftist NT scholars who approached the text with an assumption that miracles didn’t happen and didn’t consist of anyone from a European school. The NPP is not like that at all. GQ is just engaging in some guilt by association.

There are four basic tenets of “New Perspective on Paul.” First is the belief that Christians misunderstand Judaism of the first century. They say that Paul was not battling against Jews who were promoting a religion of self-righteousness and works-based salvation and that the Pharisees were not legalists. Yet the Bible describes the Pharisees as those who “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness,” “straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel,” and ones who “cleaned up the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:23–25). The view that first-century Pharisees were not legalists and their religion was not one of self-righteousness and works-based salvation directly contradicts Jesus’ own words in this and numerous other passages.

No it doesn’t. The idea is that the Pharisees did not keep the Law in order to attain righteousness. They kept it to demonstrate their righteousness. That can still work with self-righteous. The Pharisees thought they were righteous because they kept the Law, but Christ pointed out that it was all show. It would have been good for GQ to go and get Paul’s own perspective with the Law.

Philippians 3:4b-6.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

Paul would have said he kept the law flawlessly. He wasn’t living in a legalistic system where he was hoping everyday he could keep the Law. That’s the idea that has often come to us, but it’s simply a false one. In fact, the Reformers themselves would have been the first to say “Let’s look at this idea!” Their cry was “To the sources!” If this idea could be demonstrated from the sources, then let us go with it.

The second tenet of this false teaching is that Paul really did not have a problem with the doctrine of salvation taught by the Jewish leaders of his day. His disagreement with them was simply over how they treated the Gentiles and not a fundamental difference over how one is saved or justified before a holy God. However, in his letters to the Galatians and the Romans, Paul clearly and solidly condemned the works-based system of righteousness promoted by the Judaizers who were trying to lure the Galatians away from the true gospel message. In fact, he said that anyone who preached a gospel other than the one he preached should be “eternally condemned” (Galatians 1:8–9). Once again, Scripture shows that the “New Perspective on Paul” is not based on the testimony of Scripture but instead is contrary to it, making it an unbiblical teaching with serious consequences for those who follow it and are led astray by it.

No. Once again, GQ is assuming their stance and pushing it onto the Bible. The question of Galatians is “How do you show you are a part of the family of God?” The answer of the Judaizers was “Keeping the Law.” The answer of Paul was “Faith in Christ.” Paul would have indeed said you could not be righteous by keeping the Law. You can only be righteous by having faith in Christ. The NPP would not disagree with that.

The third unbiblical tenet of the “New Perspective on Paul” teaching is that the gospel is about the Lordship of Christ and not a message of personal salvation and individual redemption from the condemnation of sin. Certainly, the Lordship of Christ is an important part of the gospel truth, but, if that is all it is, how is that good news? No one can make Christ Lord of his life without first being cleansed of sin and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Only the Spirit of God can empower us to yield to the lordship of Christ. Clearly the hope of Christians is that Christ is first and foremost a Savior whose atoning sacrifice has personally and completely made atonement for their sins. It is for this reason that the gospel is the good news, because “it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

The NPP is right on this and what GQ misses is that salvation is the result of this. Since Christ is Lord, He is able to pronounce forgiveness and judgment. It’s a shame that GQ asks “How is this good news?” How is it not? One does not say “Jesus is Lord and that’s all.” It’s “Jesus is Lord and that changes everything.” The NPP is certainly right that we have individualized the Gospel and started it with ourselves instead of Christ as Lord. Again, nothing else said here about the Holy Spirit would be problematic to the NPP.

This leaves us with the fourth and the most serious unbiblical tenet of the “New Perspective on Paul” teaching—the denial of the doctrine of justification by faith, a central and non-negotiable Christian doctrine. According to proponents of this unbiblical teaching, when Paul wrote about justification, he was not speaking of personal and individual justification whereby a guilty sinner is declared righteous on the basis of his faith in Christ and Christ’s righteousness being imputed to the sinner. Instead, they claim, when Paul wrote about justification, he was speaking of how one could tell if a person was “a member of the covenant family.”

And the problem? One is welcomed into the covenant family on the basis of faith and not the works of the Law. How is that a denial of being justified by faith? Salvation still works out the same way. At this point, I can’t help but think of how someone once asked me to watch a video with Al Mohler hosting a group of Christians, whether scholars or not I couldn’t tell, on N.T. Wright’s view and if he was going against the Reformation. One person actually said “N.T. Wright may think he’s found something new in the Scriptures, but he’s going against the tradition.” I nearly fell out of my chair hearing that.

Wasn’t that kind of what the Reformation was all about? Going against tradition because of something found in the Scriptures? Why would the Reformers be opposed to this then?

According to N.T. Wright, “Justification in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was in fact, a member of his people.” The problem with this tenet of the “New Perspective on Paul” is that it distorts the biblical teaching on justification by faith and instead teaches that Paul’s doctrine of justification was only concerned with the Gentiles’ standing in the covenant community and not at all about a guilty sinner being declared just before a holy and righteous God. Simply put, we cannot disregard or redefine justification and still be considered Christian or biblical. In his writings, N.T. Wright often argues against the imputed righteousness of Christ, which is the heart and soul of the true gospel (2 Corinthians 5:21).

It would have been nice to have seen something from N.T. Wright on this. We have a quote, but who knows where it comes from? Instead, GQ puts up a straw man saying Paul was only concerned about Gentiles. No. Paul was a preacher of one Gospel. After all, Paul counted his keeping of the law rubbish when compared to Christ. It’s a shame also that GQ says Wright argues against the imputed righteousness of Christ, which is the heart and soul of the true gospel.

I could have sworn the heart and soul was Jesus Christ died, buried, and resurrected again. Could it be GQ here is actually demonstrating the point about individualizing the Gospel? They’ve said the start of the Gospel is the news about themselves. It’s not. It’s the news about Jesus.

Just as Satan called into question the Word of God to Eve, the “New Perspective on Paul” calls into question the basic doctrines of the Christian faith as revealed by the Bible and, because of this, the “New Perspective on Paul” should be rejected.

It would have been good to have seen this demonstrated, but instead, we have a head-in-the-sand approach that says “New idea! Must not be investigated!” And apparently, they didn’t. You do not find all these other scholars quoted and only one attempt at a quotation from Wright that does not even have a source. It’s because of this, that I think GQ should be rejected on this. Now it could be the NPP is not true and should be rejected, but it is better to debate a matter without settling it than to settle a matter without debating it.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

 

Forgiveness

Is forgiveness really a big deal? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

For those who don’t know, my wife Allie is blogging now. One of her recent blog posts can be found here. It was what she wrote yesterday on the topic of forgiveness and I figured that was something I could write on from my more apologetic perspective, and I did indeed comment on her blog to give her a brief inkling of my own thoughts on the matter.

Now I have said the Gospel is not all about forgiveness, but forgiveness is certainly a large part of it. The Gospel is first about God being king through Christ and forgiveness is the means God provides to get on the right side of Jesus. Forgiveness is God saying that He is cancelling the social debt between the two of you. You can be in a right relationship with Him again. It does not mean the consequences are removed. It does not even mean there can be no punishment given. Both of those could be removed, but forgiveness does not necessitate that that happen. (This is a problem with the shooting in South Carolina recently. People thought forgiving the killer would mean he would not go to jail or face any penalties. It didn’t.)

As we talked about it last night (After all, what couple doesn’t have theological discussion for their pillow talk), I pointed out that if we do not have our lives defined by joy, perhaps we are not really figuring out what forgiveness is. Perhaps we are taking it for granted. How many of us have ever said “Even if this is wrong, it’s a little sin after all so it’s really no big deal.” Sadly, I know I’ve said that, and it needs to stop. Chances are you have as well. Now I’m not at all saying that every sin is equal. I do think some sins are worse than others. I am saying that all sin is still serious.

When we come to God, we should realize God has the right to judge us. He has the power to judge us. He has the knowledge to know He’s right in His judgment. He has the holiness to say He is not being a hypocrite at all and is guilty of no wrong Himself. He has the omnipresence to know and be there for every sin we commit. Look. There’s no way of pulling a fast one over on Him. Any excuse you could have, He knows it already and He knows the ones you don’t even know about. You’re not going to be able to change His mind on anything because nothing is beyond His knowledge.

You’re in a tight spot with God and the penalty is severe. Eternal removal from His presence is no light matter.

And yet, God pronounces you forgiven because you simply ask for it and seek to live differently. You don’t have to do some grand feat. He already did the grand feat. Now let’s take all that you’ve heard above about the nature of God and realize this, this God who can do everything to you and would be entirely right in doing so has chosen to not only forgive you, but then in turn to give you an eternal blessing.

This is really hard for us to grasp because everything we do, we do with mixed motives. For instance, I would like every motive with my own wife to be pure, but I am sure I can do many things because there is a large part of me looking for what I could get in the bedroom later on for it. Now in my case, what I tell guys who wrestle with that is to do the right thing anyway and pray that God will help you to purify your motives. Chances are you will not reach 100% purification and husbands and wives need to realize that as much as we want to serve one another, we will in some ways end up seeking to please ourselves too.

God is not like that.

God never treats you as an object to His own end as the exclusion of your humanity. His forgiveness is total and let’s remember how great it is. If you commit the same sin several times a day and sincerely ask forgiveness and seek to change, God will forgive you. Consider also this in Romans 4:5

However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.

God who justifies the ungodly….

Yes. The one who is wicked is said to be made righteous in His sight.

Now the question we have to ask is how should we live our lives? If we do not live our lives as lives of joy we have to ask some things. Do we see our sins as minor and thus no big deal to forgive them? Do we see the justice of God as no big deal to violate? Do we see the guarantee of being in His presence for eternity as no big deal? Or is it some combination thereof and possibly other facts I have not considered? Where are we lacking.

Then we think about our evangelism. One show I’ve come to like lately is “Fool Us.” I can enjoy magic and Penn and Teller being atheists doesn’t bother me. It’s still entertaining, although I still wonder at the end “How the heck did those people do that trick?” While I think Penn Jillette is wrong on many things, I have to agree with his words here. How much do you have to hate someone to be a Christian and not tell them about Jesus?

Am I being indicted on this? Yep. Sure am.

And maybe it’s because like you, I need to step back and realize what forgiveness is. Perhaps I need to consider Luke 7.

“47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

Do we really realize how much we’ve been forgiven?

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Apostles’ Creed: The Forgiveness of Sins

Do we recognize what forgiveness is? Let’s dive into Deeper Waters and find out!

C.S. Lewis has a wonderful essay in his book The Weight of Glory on the forgiveness of sins. Don’t we all believe in that? Oh we say we do. But do we really? Lewis points out that many times when we say we want to be forgiven, what we really want is to be excused. Many times when we come to God in prayer, we list our sins and we often tell about how it happened and why we did what we did and how we tried so hard to resist a temptation and we just gave in. Then we ask for forgiveness.

When we ask for forgiveness, we really mean that we want it treated as if it never happened. Too often however, we ask not for forgiveness, but for our sins to be excused. We want God to simply understand why it is that the sin happened. We want Him to overlook what happened, but when we do that, then in essence, the sin is still there. (Of course, I do think God truly forgives it, but for us, it is there.)

Forgiveness is not excusing however.

You see, there are realities many times that can make it harder to resist a sin. A guy with sexual addiction for instance could have a hard time driving past a store selling pornographic supplies even if he is a Christian. Now someone like myself who is someone who very much enjoys sex, really has an attitude of wanting to avoid that as much as possible and wanting to honor my wife with my eyes. Can there still be a temptation? No doubt, but that temptation is not as strong as it is for someone with an addiction. I would be more prone to fall short in other areas, like losing my temper unnecessarily with my Allie or in a struggle with pride.

So let’s suppose someone with the addiction goes in anyway and then later confesses. The reality is, God knows all the excuses the man can give. In fact, He knows them better than the man does. He also knows what a struggle it has been for the person. He knows there are several factors at play. But He also knows one thing on His own. He knows that there is a sin. There can be no excuses for the sin. In the end, the person did do something wrong even if it was harder for him to resist and that part cannot be overlooked. That part is a blight on the face of God.

You see, sin is in many ways a sort of divine treason. Let’s look at all the things we implicitly say when we sin.

We deny the goodness of God because we think He is keeping something good from us.

We deny the love of God because we think He is being unloving keeping something from us.

We deny the omniscience of God because we think He doesn’t know that this is something we should do.

We deny the omnipresence of God because we think He doesn’t see.

We deny the omnipotence of God because we think He won’t judge.

We deny the righteousness of God because we think He has no place to judge.

We deny the rule of God because we are rebelling against Him.

In fact, we are committing divine treason. We are saying that God should not be on the throne. We should be. We want to be deity.

I have a theory also on seeing sin as uncreation. In creation, God makes a world good and beautiful. Our sin changed much of that and whenever we do sin, we are undoing the work of God. When we do that which is righteous, we are extending the work of God. We are being traitors to our own side and we will be held accountable for that.

Unless we are forgiven.

So really think about that. God does what we think could not be done. He really forgives us. He knows there is no excuse for what we did. There is no justifying it. Nothing can ever make what we did right. Yet despite all of that, He willing to treat it as if it didn’t happen and He is willing to restore us to a place that we don’t even deserve in the first place, in fact, to a place even better than the garden.

God never justifies sin. He cannot. He will not. There is no justification for anything that is done wrong. God justifies sinners. His hatred and disgust of sin will never change. But so also, His love of those of us who struggle with it will also never change. You cannot do something to make God love you less. You cannot do anything to make Him love you more. It’s constant.

Because God already loves you, He will forgive you when you ask. You do not earn forgiveness. You never could. It is a gift and it is a gift that is freely given. When God forgives you, He truly does. He no longer holds your sins against you. Too often it is we who still hold them against ourselves. If only we could grasp for a moment even the forgiveness of God and live with it for the rest of our lives.

Rest assured Christian. If you have confessed, you are forgiven, but go and sin no more. Yet when you do, confess and be forgiven. God is with you in your struggle.

In Christ,

Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Christ Crucified by Donald Macleod

What do I think about Donald Macleod’s book on the atonement? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

ChristCrucified

Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he desired to know nothing else save Christ and Him crucified. Why? What makes the crucifixion of Christ so central? What is it about those six hours on a Friday afternoon that forever rocked the world?

Donald MacLeod’s work is all about this event and what all it entails as he goes through the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament writings. This is an in-depth look at the doctrine of the atonement. After going through it, you should never think about the doctrine the same way and a reading of this got me to realize I need to think about the atonement more seriously.

So let’s cover the positives. First off, the first couple of chapters are just gripping as we go through a brief look at the life of Christ but described in terms of what the events must have been like for the Christ and how He was rejected by the world and His friends and the weight of bearing the sin of the world on the cross.

In fact, I’d say this was my favorite part of the book and if you purchase it (As IVP sent me a review copy and I greatly thank them for that) then this part will easily be worth the whole price of the book. I do not consider myself an emotional person and empathy is not a strong suit of mine, but I still found myself gripped by what I was reading.

Second positive, Macleod goes into great detail on theological terms used in Scripture like Propitiation and redemption and terms we might not think too much about. A section I thought would last a few pages turned out to go through a whole chapter.

Third, Macleod gives an apologetic presentation as well answering questions at the end such as if there was another way. He looks at rival theories that seek to explain the death of the Christ without it being a substitution and blood atonement. He also throughout the book answers charges of cosmic child abuse and other such claims.

Finally, Macleod ends the book rightly where he should, with a look at what this means for the Great Commission. He shows us that by the work of Christ, the devil has been defeated and we are free to go into the world and fulfill the Great Commission.

Now let’s talk about ways I thought the book could have been improved. On a minor point, Macleod is quite sure that Jesus was buried honorably. This is a point that I would contest. This is only a minor one, but it did stand out to me.

Second, Macleod raises some questions about divine impassibility, the idea that God does not have emotions. I found this troubling throughout as the ramifications of God being emotional are problematic as I think it ends up being a deity that is changing and progressing and in fact, dependent on His creation. A few times Macleod points to how it must have been for the Father to see His Son on the cross and at suffering in the heart of God. The theory of the atonement does not depend on God suffering and I found such ideas raising questions that I do not think are adequately answered if impassibility is denied.

Third, I would have liked to have seen more on justification. There was not a whole chapter on it and that would have been a welcome inclusion. Especially I would have liked to have seen how Macleod’s view of the atonement would interact with the New Perspective on Paul. Could we see some interaction with Wright and Dunn and others?

The good thing is that none of these negatives ultimately distract from the book as a whole. You can still walk away with a good theory of the atonement and understand that these are points you can disagree on. The argument as a whole still stands as none of these points are central.

In conclusion, I do recommend the work as one if you want to understand the atonement more thoroughly as Macleod has gone highly in-depth and we owe him a debt of gratitude.

In Christ,
Nick Peters