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

Who’s To Blame?

When someone does evil, who is responsible? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I’m in a Christian group on Facebook where anime is discussed. That’s just one interest of the group, but my wife has a great interest in the genre, so it’s something for us to do. Anime for those who don’t know is more and less a Japanese cartoon. Today, someone shared a story about an 18-year-old boy dressing as an anime character and chasing a 9-year-old girl.

All of us commenting thus far agree this kid has a problem. You don’t go around chasing a girl that you don’t know. I emphasize that last part because an older brother could obviously chase around his younger sister in play for instance, provided they both know it’s play. Go to the article and what do you see in comments? Before too long someone is blaming it all on the anime instead.

Now let’s go with the claim that a lot of animes out there contain things that are wicked and evil. Yes. So do a lot of your shows on Netflix. To be fair, so does the Bible. Of course, the Bible condemns it, but it’s still in there because the Bible shows the real nature of humanity. Not everyone is pretty and nice. Even in many Christian films you have some sort of villain or evil that has to be overcome.

The early Christians lived in a world surrounded by far greater evil than we can imagine. The wonder of Corinth was that there was even a church there. The city was rampant with prostitution. Gods and goddesses would be depicted in extremely sexual terminology. What does this tell us?

Culture does no doubt affect us to some extent, but we have to decide what is going to be the greater force in our lives. Those of us who are Christians have decided that Christ is greater than the culture around us. We also know that we can’t insulate ourselves around us entirely from the world around us.

Of course, I’m not suggesting throw caution to the wind entirely. I will not watch anything with pornography. I have a woman who I love and whose body I treasure and I don’t want to risk putting before my eyes and other image that would be a temptation to me like that.

On the other hand, many people would advise some Christians against reading atheistic literature. For a young Christian starting, that could be right, but for me, I regularly read material that argues against Christianity. It’s what I have to do and many times, I enjoy it. It keeps me making sure I’m still on the right path and it can be amusing to see the bad arguments and to argue against atheists and know their literature better than they do. Sometimes if I buy the book, someone might say I’m giving money to the authors, but I figure the little they get from me is nothing compared to what I’m able to do with the information.

The big problem with all of this is that we look at someone doing something sinful and we’re able to blame what influenced them. There’s no doubt, something can influence someone anytime, but that is not the main culprit. The greater problem is the individual himself. Some individuals have limitations that others don’t have to be sure, but ultimately, the choice comes down to the person.

Whenever you commit a sin, there is only one true cause. That is yourself. You are responsible. You have to own it. Other people could have done things that got you further in that direction. Others items in culture could have influenced your thinking, but the responsibility comes to you. When you stand before God, you will not be able to blame culture or other people for what you did wrong. You will only have yourself to give an answer for.

So what’s the key to living in this culture then? Wisdom. Learn to discern. Understand what you put in your mind. Learn what is real and what isn’t. Of course, it doesn’t mean only watch what is real. Christians have long been people of the imagination. It means to know that just because it happens in a book or on the screen doesn’t mean it will happen in reality. Fantasy should cause you to look at reality in new eyes.

By the way, I say this as an avid fan of fantasy, namely through TV shows, movies, and video games. Fantasy can inspire us to be better people and look at the world with wonder, but we must remember that that is not the real world. Again, learn to discern.

And could this be the real problem here? We don’t spend enough time teaching our kids about how they should behave and then when they want to misbehave, we blame it on everything else instead of realizing we didn’t bring them up right. Even in the story, the parents are sadly thinking that it’s no big deal. Perhaps the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

From there, we follow a Romans 14 kind of attitude. Something may be wrong for one other person, but not for another. An alcoholic should not try to go and witness in a bar most likely due to the temptation. I could walk in and find zero temptation by the alcohol due to my lifelong vow to not drink alcoholic beverages.

Hopefully we will learn to take more responsibility for oursleves instead of blaming everything and everyone else around us. Our culture is part of a blame game and this has been going on since the Garden of Eden. (This WOMAN that YOU gave me.) We as Christians need to learn to submit our wills to God. God will not force us to not sin, but He will give us the strength to avoid any temptation if we will learn to rely on Him.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Whatever Happened To Sin?

Are we missing a more theological side to strife in our country? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Another shooting has happened, this time in Oregon, and it looks like the shooter was especially wanting to target Christians. Now there are a lot of debates going on about gun control and such. I have my own opinion, but I don’t really want to talk about that. My blog is not meant to be about politics, but I would like to consider another angle to this whole situation going on. On a friend’s Facebook today I think one of my friends said what summed it up for me. “That was one evil dude.” Yes. Yes he was, and the sad reality is that it looks like in our society we’ve lost the real idea of what evil is.

You see, we live in a society that proclaims being tolerant and non-judgmental and accepting of other positions. When we talk about evil, too often we just refer to disagreement with someone or not making a wedding cake or something of that sort. Whatever your opinion of those, it’s hard to think that that really compares to murdering several people in cold blood. When 9/11 struck, evil did very quickly become a word we used more often. Yet unfortunately, we seem to have a collective short-term memory and we forget about the tragedies that strike us and try to explain what went wrong in someone’s heart to make them commit murders.

For instance, some people are talking about mental health. To an extent, I agree with them. We need to be taking mental health seriously. If you have cancer or Lou Gehrig’s Disease or Cerebral Palsy or some other physical condition, you can often find an organization pretty easily that is working to raise awareness. Think fast! What organization do you know of that is nationally recognized and known by many people that works for depression?

Do you have a hard time thinking of one?

Now there are of course some mental conditions with awareness out there. My wife and I both have Aspergers which puts us on the autism spectrum and there is indeed Autism Awareness Month. Somehow depression has slipped under the radar and it is a quite common occurrence here. Dare I say it, but the church is even worse. You see, we have this idea that in the church, you shouldn’t be depressed. You should be living a life of joy constantly. Have we forgot that our savior is described as a man of sorrows familiar with suffering? He went to the cross for the joy set before Him. He learned through suffering. Suffering and rejection were not strangers to the life of Christ and if your idea of how your life is to be is constant happiness, then Jesus is a sorry example of how you should live because His life was filled with stress and sorrow. The people that should have accepted Him the most rejected Him the most. This includes His own family!

By the way, that family would have also known about His miraculous origins and they still were ashamed of Him.

If someone has a chemical imbalance in their head, well they have a chemical imbalance. I’m not at all saying don’t pray for them in that. God can heal such an imbalance of course. I am saying don’t treat it like a stigma. For some people, this could be the cross that they have to learn to carry. We should also note that there is a difference between having depression and being depressed. I often tell my wife as well as others that you cannot choose how you feel. You can choose what you do with it even when that is admittedly hard. How many nights have I put my head down on my pillow wanting to sleep with a problem looming over my head and I have to try to focus on what I know of God and Christ through Scripture and reason? It’s not always easy. It takes active effort. Sorry, but I’m really skeptical of people who describe their lives as a life of joy. Is there joy in knowing Jesus? Of course. There’s also suffering in walking in a post-fall world.

Sadly, how many people do you know who have depression would want to share that fact in church? Hardly any. Church should be a major safe haven for people who are depressed. Many of us would be more open going to the neighborhood bar and pouring out our griefs to a bartender. You could be more prone to talk to an absolute stranger on a plane or subway about your troubles before you’d go to a church. When the world says the church is full of judgmental people, let’s be honest and admit that sometimes they have been right in what they’ve said. Could it also be many of us want to sweep under the rug the idea of other people being depressed because that means we can avoid dealing with our own internal problems?

And if this is something from a chemical imbalance, what about people who feel like pariahs for other reasons? How many people have confessed to abuse, especially sexual abuse, and then received the message that they were responsible for their abuse somehow? Or even worse, have the claim just dismissed? Of course some claims are false, but they should all be considered because these are real people we’re dealing with. Fortunately, there are many churches that are providing safe havens, such as giving programs like Celebrate Recovery to help with this bizarre realization that Christians actually struggle with sin. (Yeah. Really. No joke. Who would have imagined?)

The church is to be the body of Christ and represent Jesus on Earth. If sinners are afraid to come to you, there’s a problem, because they weren’t afraid to come to Jesus.

That having been said, while we should not ignore mental conditions, we should not act like everything is a mental condition. A mental condition could make something more likely to happen in some cases, but it does not necessitate it. After a school shooting that took place once, and I think it was the Sandy Hook one, my father-in-law went on Facebook in response to someone on his page talking about the shooter being said to have Aspergers and treating Aspies like a threat. My father-in-law spoke about how my wife and I have Aspergers and we’re not like that at all and the thought that she or I would go into a school with a gun and start shooting is just ludicrous.

Some people don’t need a mental condition to do evil. They have another problem. It’s one we all have called sin, and this is a problem we don’t really do much about.

In speaking that way, we could be making a drastic mistake.

We need to be clear that when we look at the evil, we don’t think it will go away just with medication or therapy. There is no pill you can give someone to turn them into a sinless person. Believe me, I wish there was. I wish there was something that would be “If you take this, you will no longer worry about the future.” “If you take this, you will be totally unselfish with your spouse.” “If you take this, you won’t be tempted to look at other women.” “If you take this, you will not have greed when it comes to money.” It would be nice, but it’s not there. The problem is not a problem of the wrong chemicals flowing. The problem is you and I are fallen sinful human beings and we do the behavior of fallen and sinful human beings.

Can therapy help with some of that? Absolutely. I’m not opposed to Christian therapy and I myself have partaken of it before in the past and today, while I do not see a professional therapist, I have a band of mentors and a band of listening ears because I have my own problems in this life and I need help dealing with them and I’ve had to learn the wisdom of reaching out and seeking help. Therapy will not help all of it because our therapists also have the same problem. Our therapists are fallen and sinful human beings.

What do we need to do then? Diagnose the root issue every time. Somewhere, there is still sin. Even if you have a mental illness, there is still sin. When it comes to the behavior my wife and I can exhibit as people on the spectrum, I tell them that we have an explanation, but not a justification. Do we need to change our behavior a number of times? Yeah. We do. Is there something in us that can explain why we behave the way we do at times? Yeah. Is there still something wrong in what we do at those times? Yes. Yes there is. That something is called the sin itself. There is some place in us where we still actively chose the wrong thing.

Could it be that if we got to the sin issue, we could change much of the woes of our country? Note this is more than getting people to know Jesus as their savior. (And no, this is not getting into Lordship salvation. This is not about whether people are saved but as to how seriously they are taking their following of Jesus.) There are a lot of people that get converted to Jesus and are thus babies in the faith and sadly, spend their lives as children. They do not grow and mature in their Christian walk at all. They are still fed baby food from their pulpits and never get to eat meat. There is not enough awareness about what God has to say in our lives. People want to come to a knowledge of God, but where are they getting it from? Too many are getting it from their feelings and personal experience instead of being people of Scripture. (It’s so amazing that so many of us who are Protestants and don’t like the idea of the Pope claiming to speak for God somehow think that our emotions are absolute pathways to the divine.)

This might sound outlandish, but could it be that what we really need in our churches is discipleship? We need to know what it means to be a follower of Jesus. How many of us if we’re struggling in our marriage will have no objections to going to a marriage seminar to learn how to be a good spouse? How many of us would have no hesitancy in going to a seminar our workplace wants us to go to in order to learn how to be a good employee and do sales well? How many of us realize if we want to have a job in a credentialed field, we need to go to college and get a degree that will take years?

And yet when it comes to following Jesus, we think that all just comes naturally. (In fact, following Jesus should tell you to be careful about what comes naturally.)

Could it be we need to examine ourselves and look for what is described as the sin that so easily entangles? Note also that word. Easily. It’s easy to fall into sin. It’s easy to feel imprisoned by it and feel there is no escape, and if we think deliverance will come through a feeling, we are sadly mistaken. We need to let the sacred truths of Scripture penetrate our hearts and shine within us to expose what’s not good in us. Is that painful? Yep. Is it something we hate? Yep. I have had enough of my own prayer times where I’ve had to look at what’s in my own heart and frankly, not really liked it, but oh well. That’s the only way you grow in Christ. It’s not going to be sunshine and roses.

And you know what, most of us aren’t in danger of shooting up a school. Yeah. That’s true, but we can hate our neighbor in our hearts. What does that mean? It means that if we could get away with it, we would. Many of us won’t have affairs in our marriages. That’s true, but we do lust after others. What does that mean? It means that if we could get away with it, we would. We have our own sins that we do fall into. We have various objects and activities we get addicted to, and not even bad things. Food and sex for instance are good things, but they are not meant to be idols and they can never satisfy entirely. Some of us can struggle with greed in the church. Many, especially those who are leaders, and I easily include myself, can struggle with pride. These are still sin as well and these need to be dealt with.

By all means, have the discussions when these events happen about what needs to be done in the political field. Have the real discussions that need to be had on mental health, but Christians need to in the midst of these discussions not miss the most important one. We need to have a discussion on sin and what it means then to be a follower of Jesus in a world of evil where we are supposed to be spreading the good news that Jesus is King.

Sin is real. We can put any other label on it, but it will not change sin, and there are people dead today who shouldn’t have been because of sin, and there is evil we are committing today that we shouldn’t be because of sin. Deal with what’s out there, but each of us will give an account before God of what we’re doing as well. We can’t be willing to deal with the world if we’re not cleaning up our own house first.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

When Shame Dies

Is anything wrong in our culture besides saying that something is wrong? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Many of you are quite likely fathers of daughters and so when I present an article called “What It’s Like To Date Your Dad“, you could be thinking, “I encourage fathers and daughters to have date nights. It’s one of the best ways I find out what’s going on in the life of my daughter, find out about the boys in her life, get to know her as a person, and just have some real bonding time together.” God bless you if that’s you. You’re being a good father.

But that is not what the article is talking about, unless you mean your date nights with your daughter end with the two of you making out in the bedroom together.

Unfortunately, this is what has happened. The girl in the article describes meeting her long lost father who had been missing from her life for years and feeling sexual attraction to him. Apparently, it was mutual. She describes meeting him and then within five days she lost her virginity to him. Note that this happened in the house of his girlfriend who he was living with at the time. (By the way women, if a man is willing to leave another woman because he thinks you’re better, be cautious. Who’s to say he won’t do the same to you when he finds someone he thinks is better?)

Was this a one-time thing? Nope. The girl now says that they are engaged and that they will get married and that they plan to have kids.

And this is also being defended. You can find many comments that do say that this is sick and this guy should go to jail since the girl is a minor. But then, there are others who are saying “Well who are we to judge?” and “As long as they’re happy that’s what matters.” While some of this goes into the marriage equality debate, it’s important to remember that when this whole thing started, we were told there was no slippery slope at all.

I think it’s conclusive now that that statement was wrong. We are sliding down that slope. People are defending a father having sex with his own daughter. Why?

I am convinced the reason is that they have no choice.

Sex has been treated like a deity in our culture. In a way, I understand it. If you remove God, then in all honesty, sex is the most transcendent experience that you have normally. It is radical and earthshaking and totally transforms your view of the other person. The next closest thing, and I cannot speak from experience on this one, could be drug usage. In any case, people are searching for the transcendent.

Let’s be clear also. We are a pleasure loving society. Of course, I am not anti-pleasure, but I am opposed to assuming our pleasures are the highest good. (This is not to disagree with someone like John Piper’s Christian Hedonism. I disagree with Piper in other areas, but I think he’s correct on this one.) There is no doubt of course that sex brings with it a great deal of pleasure and for many, it could be the highest pleasure. (And as far as the pleasures of the body go, yes. This one is right at the top. There is no comparison.)

So when we start talking about our society’s obsession with sex, let’s be clear right at the start. It makes sense. Since men so often think about sex, let’s note that those of us who are Christian men could be said to be just as much obsessed. Even when times come that we are not thinking about sex, it is always on the back burner and it can be brought up to our mind again immediately.

I remember the Christmas when my parents got me my first car. What did I want to do immediately? I was driving to see all my friends to show it off. I had my own set of wheels and it was a taste of freedom and I was looking forward to going everywhere I could, but I had to make sure everyone knew exactly how much I was going to be enjoying the freedom and experience I had.

Our society has done the same with sex.

When we thought we had liberated it, we wanted to show it everywhere. In the past, all you needed to see in a movie was a man and a woman going into a room and seeing the door close and perhaps hearing a click of a lock. You didn’t need to see what was going on. It was known. We can all be sure that our imaginations work well enough to supply the details. This is also why I tell men to wait until marriage to have sex as your view of women will also change. It’s very easy to imagine a relationship with a fully-clothed woman.  This is why myself and many other Christian men have to do the look away or the sky look when we’re out in public and see other women.

How much harder is it when you can so easily see them taking their clothes off right in front of you? Modern media has made that possible. Sexual relationships outside of marriage are seen as the norm and common. Of course, we just have to ask who are we to judge? As long as people are happy, what right do we really have to intrude? Are we going to be seen as prudes?

Now as I’ve said, we should not be prudes. None of us should be anti-sex. What we are really for is sex in the right place and in the right context. Put it right there and Christians should agree that it’s absolutely wonderful and a gift from God. Put it in the wrong spot and it’s just like nuclear energy. It’s fine when used properly and directed toward a proper purpose in the proper context, but get it wrong and you get Chernobyl.

A few months ago, one of my friends put up a status on Facebook saying our culture’s problem is we think way too much about sex. I argued that was the exact opposite of our problem. We do everything but think about sex truly. We have thoughts of it of course, but think about it? We do it. We dream about it. We fantasize about it. We do everything but really think about the act itself. It’s become more of a reflex than anything else.

If you don’t think but just say “If it feels good, do it” and don’t really see a purpose to sex, then in the end, how can you say someone is misusing sex? The only way to misuse it is if you think there is a proper use of it. Remove the proper use and there is no misuse. What becomes allowable at that point? Anything at all. Why is this trumpeted everywhere? Because we have to have acceptance. Without acceptance, all that is left is shame.

And that ultimately is the problem in our culture. We are becoming a culture without shame.

Shame in itself can be seen as a bad thing. No one likes to experience shame. Note I am not talking about guilt. Guilt is the internal feeling that you have done something wrong. Shame is the external awareness that your actions are not accepted by society and that you internally notice their condemnation. If society is not condemning, there is no reason to hide, so do what you want.

Ultimately, when we sear our morality this much, we actually cheapen ourselves and the world around us. What does it say about a woman who’s willing to take her clothes off for just anyone whatsoever? It doesn’t speak of a confident woman. It speaks of a woman who just sees herself as a body and of her body as the highest good she has to offer. Ultimately, it speaks of a woman who is treating herself in a cheap way.

The Christian ethic here is different. Here, the woman is told to say that she is a temple and in fact a temple of the Holy Spirit, which means she is to be honored above all. You don’t get to enter that temple cheaply. The right to come into that temple comes with a price. You must be in covenant with the person themselves in order to have a right to go into their temple. What is the price the woman charges? Your whole life. Until death do you part, you are hers and hers alone and she is yours and yours alone. You are to be faithful to her and be to only her and only then are you granted the right to enter the temple.

That we look on this as bizarre and look on the other as common tells me our society does not know what shame is really any more. As said, shame normally has a bad side to it in that no one wants to experience it, but when we do, it can be an indication that we are actually doing something wrong. If we do not have shame, then we are just like a person with CIPA who is incapable of feeling pain. It might sound nice to not be able to feel pain at first, until you realize how much not feeling pain can cause you trouble. Pain is really a gift in that case. Without being able to experience pain, we would have far more suffering in this life.

If there is no shame, then we will not be able to say anyone is doing anything wrong. We might be able to say we find it personally gross, but can we say it is wrong. “Oh I would not want to have a sexual relationship with my father, but can I really say what they are doing is wrong?” In fact, the only thing that is said to be wrong today it looks like is to say that anything is wrong.

But if some things are wrong, then silencing that warning is not helping us. It’s hurting.

If we as a society defend this, then we have to ask really where will it end? We can say that some things today are unthinkable. That’s what we would have said about redefining marriage thirty years ago. Today, it’s becoming more and more common. How many times do you see the homosexual on the TV show being seen as a celebrated figure? Even if you think the belief is wrong that homosexuality is wrong, there can be no doubt that society had a strong stance against this in the past and it would have been seen as unthinkable for many.

We have a precedent for where this is going and that there are people who are willing to defend a father sleeping with his daughter is ample demonstration of that today.

On the other hand, while society has no shame, the tragedy for the church is that we do have shame. We act like sex is something shameful to talk about. It’s not. God talks about it a lot in Scripture. Someone once told me years ago says that God talks about sex all the time because He knows that we think about it all the time. Some might object “Well why do Christians have to seem to put their noses in everyone’s bedroom and saying what they think is wrong?”

It’s not that we’re putting our noses in your bedrooms. In fact, I don’t know any Christians who are for being the sex police as it were and monitoring what goes on in bedrooms. It’s that what is going on in your bedrooms is being thrust in our face every day and when we dare say anything about it, we are immediately told that we are just talking about it too much. We’ve reached a point where a Christian cannot really have a discussion about the issue. We have to start out saying “I’m not a homophobe,” or “I don’t hate homosexuals” or something of that sort. Why? Because the “tolerant” opposition has said that if you disagree, you must be a hater or something of that sort.

For all the talk on tolerance, you’d think this Gospel that was preached would be practiced some.

Christians sadly then end up giving just a negative message on sex. We need to give a positive message, kind of like the kind I said earlier in this post. We need to celebrate and uphold sex. It has been said that one problem in our culture is that unmarried people are having too much sex and married people aren’t having enough. Why should the society outside of the church think that the church has no problem with sex if we seem to have such a negative view of it?

Too often, our messages have in fact been just that. Negative. There is a time and a place for the don’ts, but there is a place for the positive and we must give the positive. I can still think of years ago as a college student being in a church service and hearing a pastor speak to teens who had just done the Silver Ring Thing. He was telling them if they have sex before marriage, that will be for selfish reasons. Okay. I can agree with that. Fine. So what were the reasons to not have sex before marriage?

Think of the guilt that you’ll feel. Think of how embarrassed you’ll be on your wedding day. Think of the possibility that you could get pregnant or you could get an STD.

And as I was listening I was thinking “Those sound like selfish reasons to me too.”

Never seemed to occur to say “This is wrong. It’s wrong because God made sex and here’s how He made it to be used and why and here are the benefits when you use it this way.”

In fact, during this sermon I was getting bored.

Note to all pastors reading this. If you are preaching a sermon on sex, and your audience is getting bored, especially college age guys, you are doing something wrong. (In fact, we could say at this point if you preach on Christ and your audience is not keeping interest, you are doing something wrong.)

If we do not get our message out about what sex is, our youth will only hear one message and that message will far overwhelm ours. Think back to when you were dating. If all you had when you were alone with your boyfriend/girlfriend at the time consisted of nothing more than a few verses from Paul, do you really think that those alone would have overpowered your hormones at the time? Those of us who are married today know well that in the proper context it’s still extremely difficult to override our hormones if we have to and those hormones can often provide some darn good justification for something we want.

We need to get our positive message out and we need to celebrate it. Yes. What goes on in our bedrooms is a private matter, but the subject matter of our bedrooms should be discussed. Churches need to have messages on sex on a regular basis. Why? Because the people in your congregation are thinking about it on a regular basis.

If you lived in Salt Lake City and were the pastor of a Christian church, you would need to have messages addressing Mormonism regularly because your congregation sees it regularly. If you lived in Egypt in the same situation, you would need to talk about Islam. If you were an Israeli pastor in Israel, you’d talk about Judaism. Well in America, the great deity that is being talked about is sex, and we need to talk about it.

As it stands, our culture not only looks at illicit sex with approval, but broadcasts it. This girl in the article I linked to earlier has her fifteen minutes of fame today. Why? She is sleeping with her father. These kinds of stories are being broadcast everywhere. Just look at the magazine rack in the grocery store. This woman in the story is being interviewed as if this is a real deep human interest and we all want to know what it’s like to be sleeping with your Dad.

How do we reverse the trend where sexual stances that should be shamed are celebrated and sexual stances that should be celebrated are shamed?

For one thing, we have to drop out of this mode of “It’s not for me to judge.” Of course it is. Jesus did say judge not, but He spoke of hypocritical judging. Not all judging. How else are you supposed to know who the pigs and dogs are that He spoke about? If you have enough information to make a judgment, then you need to make a judgment. Believe it or not, how someone feels is not the most important thing in the universe. Whether they’re doing something right or wrong is more important.

It’s also because of our individualism. The self-esteem movement has told us that how we think about ourselves is most important, but in reality, I don’t think any of us have fully bought into that myth. Why? Because we are all still seeking everyone else’s approval. But if we hold to a strong individualism, then you dare not speak out against what the individual does. What right do you have to speak against their feelings after all?

Reality is that we can reverse the trend and the best way the church can do this is simply to be the church. We must speak where Jesus would speak and be silent where He would be silent. Jesus had the greatest of love for sinners, but He never once hesitated to call sin sin. Many of us consider the story of the woman caught in adultery, but even then while Jesus did not condemn her, He did say “Go and sin no more.” (I do not think the story was part of the writing of John, but I do think that it is a true story that found its way into the copies of John.) Jesus called the action sin still. You can have utter hatred of sin, as Jesus did, and total love of sinners, as Jesus did.

We should not be ashamed of our stance on sex and we should in fact celebrate sex, while making it clear that we find what the world does shameful. When Duck Dynasty had its situation with people caling A&E and disconnecting their cable, what saddened me most afterwards was how Christians stopped their actions after their show was restored. Christians were willing to fight for a TV show, their entertainment, but they were not willing to keep going for marriage.

Remember church. We can win battles. We often do. We just don’t usually show up.

Go look at the above story again. Really look at it. A girl is sleeping with her father. If she has a boy, he will be her son/brother and if she has a girl she will be her daughter/sister. The father will always be a father/grandfather. The reason she is able to do this so confidently in society is she sure she will be accepted.

How far is this going to go?

As far as we let it.

How far are you willing to let it go?

If we do not speak today,will there be anyone to speak in the future?

In Christ,
Nick Peters