Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Source of True Personality

C.s.lewis3“The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. There is so much of Him that millions and millions of ‘little Christs’, all different, will still be too few to express Him fully. He made them all. He invented— as an author invents characters in a novel—all the different men that you and I were intended to be. In that sense our real selves are all waiting for us in Him. It is no good trying to ‘be myself’ without Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires. In fact what I so proudly call ‘Myself’ becomes merely the meeting place for trains of events which I never started and which I cannot stop. What I call ‘My wishes’ become merely the desires thrown up by my physical organism or pumped into me by other men’s thoughts or even suggested to me by devils. Eggs and alcohol and a good night’s sleep will be the real origins of what I flatter myself by regarding as my own highly personal and discriminating decision to make love to the girl opposite to me in the railway carriage. Propaganda will be the real origin of what I regard as my own personal political ideas. I am not, in my natural state, nearly so much of a person as I like to believe: most of what I call ‘me’ can be very easily explained. It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.”

From Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Wright on Gnosticism’s Popularity

“The appeal of second century Gnosticism is that people in our culture are eager to find anything to rebuke or replace traditional Christianity. This myth—what I call ‘the new myth of Christian origins,’ according to which Jesus was just an ordinary person who taught a new type of spirituality, that He didn’t die for our sins or rise again—is what’s lurking behind the Jesus Seminar. Many people in our culture don’t like traditional Christianity and are eager to find anything else at all to go with instead” (N.T. Wright in an interview from 2007).

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Robert Kolb on Lutherans and the Covenant of Works

I found this quote by the Lutheran theologian Robert Kolb on the general Lutheran response to the Reformed teaching of a covenant of works.

“Lutherans hear in this expression [‘covenant of works’] the assertion that human performance determined human righteousness initially and that the covenant of grace is an emergency measure designed to meet the situation created by the fall into sin.  Luther's distinction between passive righteousness (the righteousness of trust) and active righteousness (the righteousness of acts of love) presumes that Adam and Eve were pleasing to God and regarded as his children only because of God's mercy, because God had decided apart from any grounds in them that they would be his own.  God's expectations for human performance from Adam and Eve, their active righteousness, flowed from this passive, God-given righteousness that could not be earned by human merit.  It was simply, also for Adam and Eve, a gift from his gracious disposition and the love for human creatures shrouded in the mystery of his divinity.  God's covenant, Lutherans believe, always rests solely on that disposition and never, in any way, on human performance” (Robert Kolb in Understanding Four Views on Baptism, page 79).

Must Jesus Earn Favor With God for Us? More Wright Stuff.

Precisely because he loves, God condemns sin, but in his love God takes his condemnation of sin upon himself so that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, so says N.T. Wright in a brief homily you can find here.  (See relevant quotes from the homily below.)

A major point of contention for traditional Protestants is N.T. Wright’s different take on how we are made righteous.  Specifically, he says that the Reformation doctrine of imputed righteousness is not taught in Paul and introduces a legalistic understanding of our relationship with God, that our relationship with God is thereby based on merit, not love.  Imputation teaches Jesus meriting our relationship with God.  He says this idea of having to merit a relationship with God is importing the late medieval world of Luther and Calvin to which they were responding and unwittingly importing into their view of the text.

This is very interesting because many Reformed theologians think of the original relationship in the garden as a covenant of works (whereby Adam merits eternal life by obedience) whereas I’ve read confessional Lutheran theologians who reject this outright and instead say that the original relationship with God was based on love.  Somewhere I’ve read the critique that in viewing the relationship of God and Adam as a covenant of works Reformed theology introduces a legalistic tendency from the very beginning.  Interesting.

I haven’t read all of Wright’s argument about imputation so really can’t speak with knowledge but from what I have read I know Wright both teaches and professes penal substitutionary atonement, though he holds the Christ is Victor understanding as first among equals when it comes to atonement theories. 

If our relationship with God is not rooted in an original covenant of works that requires merit then there is no need to merit eternal life.  It was always a gift to be received, not earned.  All that is needed is the forgiveness of sins, which Wright points to as having happened in Christ’s bearing the condemnation for our sin on the cross.  In Jesus Christ we are forgiven, that is enough.  There is no need to merit relationship with God.  There is no earning it, whether for Adam or for Christ in our place.  What is needed is for Christ to remove the barrier to our fellowship with God, i.e., our status as condemned sinners.

Here’s some quotes from Wright’s sermon on the cross:

“At the heart of the complex explanation Paul gives in the next two verses [Romans 8:2-3] for why there is no condemnation, we find this central statement in which we find the life and peace of the gospel itself: ‘For God has done what the law . . . could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin-offering, he condemned sin in the flesh.’”

“He would take upon himself the condemnation which, precisely because he loves us to the uttermost, he must pronounce over that deadly disease we call sin. To deny this, as some would do today as they have for hundreds of years, is to deny the depth and weight of sin and the deeper depth and heavier weight of God’s redeeming love. The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Law/Gospel Distinction and N.T. Wright

One of the profound insights of the Protestant Reformation is what has come to be known as the law/gospel distinction.  Here’s a good summary from my church’s tradition:

Any passage of the Bible, whether it be the Old Testament or the New, that tells what God requires of men is Law.  The Gospel … tells of God’s gift, i.e., of the salvation from sin thru [sic] Jesus Christ.  All the promises and institutions of God in the Old Testament which deal with salvation are included in the term Gospel (Evangelical Fundamentals, Eden Publishing House, 1916, page 3).

Martin Luther said, “The person who can rightly divide Law and Gospel has reason to thank God.  He is a true theologian” (Commentary on Galatians).

Why is this so important?  Because it keeps grace, grace.  The law/gospel distinction is the key to a true grace-based faith that avoids the twin ditches of legalism and lawlessness. 

It’s been exciting to see some contemporary ministries rediscover and appropriate this wonderful truth.  I’m thinking of Billy Graham’s grandson, Tullian Tchividjian, the pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church.  In a series of popular level articles he unpacks this powerful insight for a new generation.

I’m also thinking of Michael Horton of the White Horse Inn and the repeated emphasis he and others associated with that ministry make on the need to rightly divide Law and Gospel.  Without question, rediscovering this truth is bearing much fruit, especially in conservative Reformed circles.

Salem, the church I pastor, has a special claim to this heritage (as demonstrated in the quote above) given it’s roots in German Protestantism, especially Lutheranism.  I have myself benefited greatly from approaching Scripture and pastoral ministry through this lens, which brings me to the meat of this post. 

Does N.T. Wright’s version of the New Perspective on Paul undermine the law/gospel distinction?  Yes and no.  Yes, he does undermine reading “gospel” as Paul uses it to mean simply “salvation from sin though Jesus Christ”.  He proves convincingly (from what I’ve read so far) that gospel means much more.  It is the declaration that Jesus is the promised messiah and is therefore King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  As messiah he has brought salvation and immortality to light and the gospel is itself the power of God unto salvation, but the gospel is more than the message of salvation, not less.

No, Wright does not undermine the emphasis of salvation by grace through faith.  He is clear that present justification is by faith.  We don’t look at our works.  We look at Christ and what he accomplished in defeating our enemies, including our personal guilt.  Final justification will be in accordance with works (as Wright recently clarified) meaning that a life of faith will bring forth fruit which will be brought to light in the final judgment.  Practically this means if you have no fruit you should wonder whether you really have faith, and the answer to that concern is to despair of yourself and trust Christ, arising by faith to a new life.

Perhaps it would be better to speak of a law/grace distinction, law being that which is summarized by loving God and neighbor and grace being what God has done in messiah to “set the world to rights” (to use a favorite phrase of Wright’s).  Setting the world (including myself) to rights is a work of God accomplished in messiah Jesus which includes the assurance that our sins are forgiven and that the Spirit will indwell us bringing forth fruit that will remain.  Faith trusts this promise and the even larger promise (which Wright doesn’t want us to miss) of a creation set to rights on the last day.

Still More Wright: It All Makes Sense

It is no exaggeration to say that reading What Saint Paul Really Said by N.T. Wright has been exhilarating.  It’s far better than the popular works I’ve read by him.  His is a very convincing reading of Paul, demonstrating how Jesus is the natural, though unexpected, climax of Israel’s mission.  This is powerful.

Just the other day I got a newsletter from one of the local churches in which the pastor explained his disbelief in the bodily resurrection of Christ.  For him resurrection means walking in “newness of life”.  (I believe this fairly characterizes his position.)  One of his arguments against the bodily resurrection of Jesus is that the Christians needed a solution to a dead messiah and therefore came up with the resurrection as a way of converting the Jews.  This involved, according to him, “rather disingenuous interpretations of Jewish scriptural texts”.

Wright shows precisely the opposite is the case.  Here’s an example of his writing,

Paul believed, in fact, that Jesus had gone through death and out the other side.  Jesus had gone into a new mode of physicality, for which there was no precedent and of which there was, as yet, no other example.  And this too had happened ‘according to the scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:4).  Once again, this doesn’t mean that Paul could dig out a handful of biblical prooftexts predicting that someone would rise again as an isolated event within history.  It means that he saw the entire biblical narrative moving this way (pages 50-51).

Now the whole of the book is Wright’s argument that the whole of the biblical narrative was moving this way, that Jesus’ life, death, and bodily resurrection is the natural fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures.  It’s powerful, powerful stuff that calls into serious question readings like the one expressed by the local pastor above.  Wright’s reading simply makes way more sense of the Bible and grounds classic Christian beliefs on a much surer historical and exegetical basis.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

More Wright

WhatPaulSaidI’m reading What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? by N.T. Wright in preparation for reading his new longer work on Paul.  My impression so far is that Wright hasn’t changed much from what he wrote here (published in 1997).  Much of what he says here he says in other books I’ve read (Evil and the Justice of God, Simply Christian, etc.).   What he writes here also sounds a lot like what I heard him say at the conference I attended in Oklahoma. 

One of the responders to his new book at the conference mentioned that he found it to be an elaboration more or less of his long held position.  With that in mind and having only read the first two chapters I recommend What Saint Paul Really Said.  At just 183 pages it’s a great entryway to the ideas found in his new book with its 1700 pages.

In the chapters I’ve read he goes into the history of the interpretation of Paul and gives what he believes to be Paul’s background in the Judaism of his day.  I must say that so far it’s a pretty convincing read.

The cover story of the current Christianity Today is on Wright.  While a fairly good article I was disappointed in the way the author seemed to want to foster controversy.  I found the paragraph below less than helpful.

It is important to stop and note how dramatically Wright has reworked things here. It means, in part, that the evangelist at summer camp who asked me, "If you died tonight, why should God let you into heaven?" was wrong when he provided the answer, "For no reason other than that Jesus died in my place."

From what I’m getting from Wright it’s more complicated than that.  From Wright’s perspective the evangelist in the paragraph above was speaking a smaller, out-of-focus gospel but the full gospel does include within it Jesus taking away the sins of the world thereby renewing our fellowship with God which we are called to receive by faith. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

N.T. Wright on Faith Alone

I’m looking forward to reading N.T. Wright’s new book on the apostle Paul.  As stated in my last post Wright is identified with the so-called New Perspective on Paul, which itself includes many variations.  One of the major concerns that has been raised is in the area of justification.  Some of Wright’s language about a future judgment by works has caused traditional Protestants to wonder if he fully supports justification by faith.  He responded to these concerns in 2011 in an address to the Evangelical Theological Society (a pdf of the address can be found here).

Here’s a relevant quote:

But I want now to emphasize particularly that this future justification, though it will be in accordance with the life lived, is not for that reason in any way putting in jeopardy the present verdict issued over faith and faith alone. Precisely because of what faith is—the result of the Spirit’s work, the sign of that Messiah-faithfulness which is the proper covenant badge—the verdict of the present is firm and secure. “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” Of course. Nothing that Paul says, or that I say, about future justification undermines that for a moment. The pardon is free, and it is firm and trustworthy. You can bet your life on it. It is everlasting. It will be reaffirmed on the last day—by which time, though you will not be fully perfect even at your death, the tenor and direction of your life, through the Spirit’s grace, will have been that patience in well-doing which seeks for glory, honor, and immortality. Following that final verdict, to quote another great hymn, we will be “more happy, but not more secure.”

Monday, March 31, 2014

Semper Reformanda and N.T. Wright


Semper Reformanda (always being reformed) is a Latin phrase used by Reformation Protestants like myself to speak of the conviction that the church must always be open to being changed.  The way this happens is expressed by the fuller phrase “reformed and always being reformed according to the word of God”.  This fuller phrase points to another Latin phrase, sola scriptura (the Scriptures alone).  As one Reformed theologian put it, the Bible is the source, tradition is a resource and thus open to correction.

There are those who want to throw off tradition altogether, folks on both sides of the theological spectrum.  There are liberal Christians who want to start fresh with each generation and construct a theology whole cloth.  The same is true of certain conservative Christians who rightly emphasize the Bible as the only source but then interpret that to mean that any use of tradition is suspect, any use of tradition involves nullifying God’s word.  (One way to describe this conservative tendency is with the name Restoration Protestantism.  Rather than wanting to take what exists and gain from it, reforming it where necessary, Restoration Protestants want to start all over with just the Bible.)

Reformation Protestants like myself see both sides as misguided because we never start at a neutral place.  We all stand somewhere.  Every church, every person begins with certain assumptions.  Everyone has a tradition in which they stand.  The difference is whether or not they admit it.  As a Reformation Protestant I simply say I’d rather make my assumptions explicit and therefore open and accessible to correction.  (You can read my church’s catechism and the biblical arguments used in support of its teaching and see for yourself whether you agree with what we believe.  It’s out in the open.)

Which brings me to the meat of this post.  If there is going to be true ongoing reformation it is going to be “according to the word of God”, which means presenting a more convincing reading of the source (i.e., the Bible).  This is precisely the point Richard Hays makes in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament.  He talks about those who seek to get leverage against the Bible in making their moral arguments (liberal Protestants) and says that in the long run such arguments won’t stand.  True reformation that lasts is rooted in a better understanding of Scripture.  That is where true change happens.

Herein lies the challenge of N.T. Wright (and Richard Hays for that matter).  N.T. Wright is not a liberal Protestant.  He is not trying to get leverage against the Bible.  As he said at the conference I attended in Oklahoma he is not seen as a liberal in his home church, the Church of England.  He has taken quite public stands on unpopular issues such as upholding traditional marriage.  But what makes him both challenging and compelling is that he takes these stands because he believes they are based on the best reading of the source (the Bible) and he shows in a very scholarly way how he came to that conclusion.  (It’s this ability that has opened doors for him at places like Harvard where he taught an undergraduate course on the bodily resurrection of Jesus.)

Precisely because he is willing to take unpopular stands and follow what he sees as the best reading of the source he has come into conflict with traditional Protestants over his reading of Paul.  He says he’s come to believe that the traditional reading of Paul (what is often called the “old perspective”) is colored too much by the 16th century concerns of the Protestant reformers and needs to be corrected.  He offers a new reading (and is identified with that which is being called the “new perspective” on Paul) but constantly says that if his new reading is right it doesn’t nullify the old reading.  He constantly says that if he is right you get everything you find in the old reading but on a surer basis and with expanded insights and understanding.

The response to Wright’s new reading has varied from an uncritical embrace to a knee-jerk rejection.  The right response I believe must be the one lifted up as the right response to Paul’s new reading of the Old Testament.  It says in the book of Acts,

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11 NIV).

The Berean response is only right response for Reformation Protestants affirming Semper Reformanda.  Anything else would mean we had abandoned the source for something else, changing the very basis for our shared beliefs.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Recognizing the Truth about Our Children

“Infants do believe after their manner, or according to the condition of their age; they have an inclination to faith” (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus).

“Infants born to believing parents have faith as to inclination” (Ibid.).

“Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast” (Psalm 22:9 NIV).

From birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother’s womb.  I will ever praise you” (Psalm 71:6 NIV).

“Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Corinthians 7:14b NIV).

The children of believers are NOT to be treated as unclean (as being apart from God) but as clean and holy.  That is the plain teaching of 1 Corinthians 7:14.  Believing parents bring the presence of Christ into the lives of their children in such a way that the Bible declares them clean and holy.

In the Bible baptism is directly connected with having been made clean.

“And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16 NIV).

at-the-font_f_1_600_1When churches like Salem baptize the children of believers they are recognizing the truth about those children, the truth the Bible teaches us about them.  They are NOT unclean; they ARE clean and holy. 

But what about faith?  Don’t we receive salvation (being made clean) by faith alone?   

Churches like Salem believe that children of believers have faith “after their manner” (see first quote above).  This kind of faith is described in the Psalms quoted above.  But that’s the Old Testament you say.  Isn’t there a difference between the Old Testament experience and our New Testament experience? 

Well, the difference between the Old and the New Testament is not that we now have less than they did.  Rather, we have more!   The presence and reality of God is all the more present in the home of believers bringing forth faith in their children, a faith appropriate to children.

But is the faith of children real faith?

“Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10:15 NIV).

Jesus nowhere says “unless children believe like adults”.  To say that is to turn the words of Jesus on their head.

Now, of course, as children grow they must “work out their own salvation” (Philippians 2:12).  They must believe after a manner appropriate to those who are older.  This means moving into a life of conscious faith versus one of inclination to faith.

“Conversion is the conscious acceptance of the new God-given life” (Evangelical Fundamentals, Eden Publishing House, 1916).

The way conversion happens is as parents and Sunday School teachers and pastors point children to place their trust in Christ for their salvation.  This happens in daily devotions, Sunday School classes, children’s sermons, Vacation Bible School.

Such children will not usually have a conversion experience, and that’s okay.  The Bible nowhere says “you must have a conversion experience”.  Time and again it tells us to personally trust in Jesus Christ and what he accomplished and we will be saved.  (Of course, the Bible does say that we must be born again, we must be made spiritually alive.  Anyone who personally trusts Jesus for salvation is born again, is spiritually alive.  No one can put such trust in Christ unless they have been made alive—see 1 Corinthians 12:3.)

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31 NIV).

Experiences are well and good, and I thank God for them, but we don’t put our trust in our having had this or that experience.  We put our trust in the promise that those who believe in the Lord Jesus will be saved. 

Feelings come and go.  If our assurance of salvation depended on our feelings we would be on shaky ground indeed.  No, time and time again, we return to the promise. 

When I as a pastor point people to hold onto their baptism I’m telling them to hold onto the promise that God wants them to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4).  Baptism is a point of contact so to speak.  It’s a visible preaching of the gospel that Jesus is the sacrifice of atonement for the whole world (1 John 2:2) and that means you.  Baptism is the promise personally applied to you.

Holding onto your baptism is nothing other than personally trusting God’s promise that those who look to Jesus for salvation will be saved. 

There’s so much more I could say on this, but I’ll stop for now.  I hope this post will help Salem members (and others) understand a little better why it is we do what we do.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

N. T. (Wright) at OC (Oklahoma Christian University)

Wright Banner

I was privileged to attend a couple of gatherings on the campus of Oklahoma Christian University featuring N. T. Wright.  The first of these gatherings was a public lecture he gave on the topic “The Strange Challenge of Truth”.  From what was shared by those introducing him I gather he was asked to speak on the subject of truth.

I learned little new about Wright’s position concerning truth from the lecture.  He has mentioned in one of his books I’ve read that he is a critical realist.  I take this to mean he believes we can know the real world though it always comes to us through our lens and therefore the need to be critical.

What was new to me was Wright’s emphasis on coming to know the truth through experiencing the new life in Christ.  He didn’t use the words “new life” but that’s how I interpret his emphasis on receiving the biblical word and by it encountering God and thereby coming into the reality of God’s love.  It’s by living in that love that we come to know the truth. 

Wright brought in the reality of sin and the fall as an obstacle to knowing truth apart from Christ.  It’s because of these realities that we need a living word from God in order to know truth.

I enjoyed the lecture very much.  Wright speaks as one steeped in the Bible and comes at things in a new and fresh way, out of his overall vision of the Bible’s message.  He doesn’t rely on the words and definitions of theological tradition.  In this way he gives substance and biblical support to many fundamental theological insights made by those who are systematic theologians and not Bible scholars.  (Wright’s understanding of truth seems quite similar to that of folks like Barth and Brunner, and following them, Bloesch, with their emphasis on the personal address of God.)

My guess is that Wright isn’t nearly as well-versed in systematic theology as he is in the world of biblical scholarship (which he knows quite well).  I think this reflects his desire to let the Bible speak for itself.  He wants to do original research.  Back to the sources!  I get the sense that he isn’t quite interested in following this or that theological tradition.  Let’s just say tradition isn’t as important to him as it is to many confessional Protestants.  This in part accounts for his often coming into conflict with conservative scholars and pastors. 

I think there’s much Wright has to offer traditional Protestants.  After all, he is following the Protestant scripture principle.  He gives Protestants fresh backing for many of their traditional beliefs.  I’m interested in reading more on his position regarding justification.  My gut feeling is that he’s not far off there as well.  From the little I’ve read it seems that he has questioned a tendency in Protestantism to reduce salvation to forgiveness of an individual’s sins (which he doesn’t deny) and he’s wanting to give expression to what he sees as the Bible’s bigger vision of what has happened in Christ.

Of course I think there are things Wright can learn from conservative Protestants and see certain blind spots in his thinking, but I’ll save that for future posts.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

August Church Newsletter Article

“Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Romans 10:17 NIV).

Why put your trust in something or someone?  Because you believe that person or thing to be trustworthy.  We say it like this, “He/She/It inspires our trust.”  Some quality about a person or thing causes us to believe we can trust them.

The same is true when it comes to Christian faith.  Christian faith comes as we hear “the word about Christ.”  The book of Acts says,

“As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them …” (Acts 17:2 NIV).

I’m convinced that much of the lack of faith in our time is due in large part to people not hearing the evidence for Christ.  No one reasons with them.

Kirsten Powers, who formerly served in the Clinton Administration and is now a political commentator, describes her experience of coming to faith.

“I started dating someone who went to Tim Keller’s church, Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. Out of curiosity, I went with him. But I told him upfront that I would never become a Christian; that it’s never going to happen. After about six or seven months, I began to think that the weight of history is more on the side of what [I was hearing at this church] than not. Tim Keller had made such a strong case, that I began to think it’s not even smart to reject this. It just doesn’t seem like a good intellectual decision.”*

She goes on to say that she came to realize that God had been pursuing her, that ultimately her conversion was a work of God, but how did God work?  Through means.  God works through the means of hearing the reasons for believing.

This month we begin Sunday School classes and confirmation instruction.  Pray for those attending these classes.  Pray that as they hear the reasons for believing they would grow in faith and hope and love.

I pray for you.  I pray you would know more and more why Christ is worthy of your trust, because the more you know Christ is trustworthy the more you will experience his reality in your life.

God’s very best to you!