Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Justification - An Overview Part 2

In the past decade or two I have come across very sincere Christians wishing to "improve" or further "enlighten" their faith by reverting back to Judaism or Judaistic cultural practices and customs. From one perspective I can applaud their sensitivity to the NT's forefounders found in Deuteronomic Jewish practice, but from another perspective - from that of the Apostle Paul of the NT (who tends to mis-apporpriated, denied, detracted from and generally disregarded by our sincere brethren) - we find time and again his statements of faith and faith alone. Without observation or practice of past/present Jewish customs and culture. Without renewed observance of Deuteronomic laws in kosher foods, calendar dates, dress or worship styles.

How many times did Paul have to reprove/rebuke Peter that to truly follow Christ was through faith and faith alone apart from any renewed religious practices or Old Covenantal zeal? That Peter was unnecessarily adding "laws" to the Christian faith that were not necessary under the New Covenant. That the New Covenant abandoned all Jewish practices and did not renew them in Christ. For remember, Paul was a former rabbi (or, rabbi-of-the-rabbis by his own declarations) and zealot for the Jewish faith (sic, he persecuted Christians and had Stephen stoned) in his pre-Christ days.

Thus, as born-again Christians, it is not necessary to become Jewish Christians proselytizing other Gentile Christians from their Gentile faith in Christ to a "higher plane" of Judaistic Christianity, which then makes two bodies out of the one body of Christ. It is not necessary to "Judaize" the brotherhood with zeal and fervor to all things Jewish, highlighting Jesus as our new Rabbi while excluding Paul from any New Covenant statement and admonishing Jewish practices over our dead, heathen cultural practices.

But it is necessary for all of us, whether Jew or Gentile, to become "Messianic Christians" who reverantly understand the OT Jewish customs given of God to his remnant community under the Old Covenant, will respecting Christ's removal of the Old Covenant constrictions upon non-Jewish people (and Jewish I might add) in justifying all men through faith. Whose obedience is then seen not by renewed Jewish practice but by extending New Covenant import and principles throughout the body and humanity of mankind from age to age. To converted Buddhistic Chritians to converted Islamic Christians to converted American Christians. That we are to find in Christ one table, one presence, one body, one feast, one dress and calendar, one food in the new bread and wine who is our Lord.

So then, as I understand NT Wright and others, he is addressing Paul's "justification by faith understanding" in the "one new man" sense of Christ (sic, Ephesians) eschatologically (trans-culturally, trans-nationally, trans-temporally) and ecclesiologically ("one body in Christ") as versus the correct, but older understanding of Paul's law v. grace statements in Romans and elsewhere (soteriological) personal-justification statements.

To this statements here, I'll make further admendation/elucidation down below as necessary.



What Did Paul Really Mean?

'New perspective' scholars argue that we need, well, a new perspective on justification by faith.

Simon Gathercole
posted 8/10/2007

Pick up any recent Bible commentary or theology textbook, and you will read about something called the "new perspective on Paul." Seminaries have buzzed for decades about how they might apply to Paul the new light shed on Judaism. Some advocates of the new perspective conclude that the Reformers have led Protestants to misunderstand the all-important doctrine of justification.

As a result, the new perspective has stirred more than a little controversy. Ligon Duncan, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), said new perspective theology "undercuts the certainty of believers regarding the substance of the gospel message." In June, the PCA General Assembly said advocates of the new perspective should report themselves to presbytery courts, because their teaching does not accord with the Westminster Standards.

Leading new perspective theologian N. T. Wright has repeatedly responded to his critics. Talking in 2004 with James D. G. Dunn, who named the new perspective, Wright faulted his critics for producing websites that "are extremely rude about the two people sitting on this platform tonight for having sold Paul down the river and given up the genuine Reformed doctrine of justification by faith."

So is this merely a squabble among Reformed theologians? Certainly not—some new perspective scholars also teach that Martin Luther's preoccupation with the Roman Catholic Church has led all Protestants astray. Do we now need to reframe our preaching and teaching to be truly biblical? British scholar Simon Gathercole takes on that question in this article.—CT Editors


For nearly 30 years, a number of theologians have argued for a "new perspective" on the apostle Paul and his doctrine of justification. Advocates of this approach believe that many cherished concerns of the Protestant Reformation were either wrong or ill-directed. Those concerns include justification, which Martin Luther described as nothing less than the "key article of Christian doctrine." Yet some evangelicals have found in the writing of new perspective theologians—particularly James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright—a key to unlocking Paul's original intent. So what's all the fuss about?

What's So New About Paul?

One point that needs to be clear at the outset is that the new perspective on Paul is not really what it might sound like. For one thing, no secret society meets to promote this new school of thought. Advocates do not even offer a united front: Scholars generally associated with the new perspective argue with each other just as much as traditionalists do. The new perspective is, rather, a convenient umbrella for a current trend in Pauline scholarship with quite a limited agenda.

This leads to a second point. The new perspective does not propose to reevaluate all of Paul's thought. It says nothing new, for example, about the person of Christ, the Holy Spirit, or the Christian life. It is focused narrowly on what Paul says about justification, and even more specifically on what Paul opposes when he talks about justification by faith. In particular, the new perspective investigates the problem Paul has with "works" or "works of the law."

The difference between old and new perspectives can be summed up briefly. In the old perspective, works of the law are human acts of righteousness performed in order to gain credit before God. In the new perspective, works of the law are elements of Jewish law that accentuate Jewish privilege and mark out Israel from other nations.

Two vital ingredients go into the new perspective. The first is actually more a new perspective on Judaism than on Paul. It reacts against the traditional idea that Jews in Paul's day believed they could accumulate merit before God by their deeds. In place of seeing Paul's contemporaries as legalistic, the new perspective says the concern in early Judaism was to maintain the identity of the Jewish nation, especially through observing the Sabbath, circumcising their newborns, and eating kosher. These boundary markers or badges of identity for the Jewish nation distinguished them as belonging to God's covenant people.

[So then, Paul is saying that there is one new man in Christ and that being Jewish is no longer necessary in a kingdom eschatological and ecclesiological sense as versus a (soteriological) justification sense of no longer performing distinctively cultural Jewish practices. And thus, we’ve misunderstood and misapplied the Law v. Grace debates of Romans. – sh]

Second, this understanding of first-century Judaism is then applied to Paul. According to the new perspective, Paul is only focusing on these aspects of Jewish life (Sabbath, circumcision, food laws, [and calendar observations]) when he mentions "works of the law." His problem isn't legalistic self-righteousness in general. Rather, for Jews these works of the law highlighted God's election of the Jewish nation, excluding Gentiles. Called by God to reach the Gentiles, Paul recognizes that Jews wrongly restricted God's covenant to themselves.

Paul extends these insights to church relations. Just as Jews wrongly restricted God's covenant, so also Jewish Christians wrongly insisted that Gentile Christians needed to observe the law to be full-fledged disciples. This led to the challenge that Paul issued to Peter at Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14). How could Peter withdraw from table fellowship with the Gentiles there? Surely such an action was inconsistent with the truth of the gospel.

These two points are the product of a flurry of literature in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The new perspective on Judaism was argued for largely by E. P. Sanders in his Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). Sanders was particularly concerned about anti-Jewish tendencies in the old perspective and its portrayal of Judaism as inferior to Christianity. Sanders's aim was to present a cleaned-up picture of early Judaism, untainted by Christian prejudice. He argued that both pre-Christian Judaism and its successor, rabbinic Judaism, had just as strong an emphasis on grace as Pauline Christianity did. Election was central to Judaism, as was God's redemption of his people from Egypt. Observing the law merely kept Jews in the covenant established by God.

Scholars received Sanders's work as a major contribution to Jewish studies. But it fell rather flat when applied to Pauline scholarship. So N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn, along with Sanders, attempted to integrate this new view of Judaism more successfully with a new view of Paul. They focused on "exclusivism," the sense of national righteousness maintained by practices such as Sabbath-observance, circumcision, and keeping kosher. Paul, the new perspective argued, dedicated himself to warning against exclusivist national righteousness. God was bringing people from all nations to believe in the Messiah.

Happy Beginning, Sad Ending

Almost all scholars, new and old, agree that Paul answers the problem of "works of the law" with "faith." But if the new perspective has shifted how we understand works of the law, then the meaning of faith—or at least the emphasis of it—needs to shift as well. In the old perspective, faith means trust in God's mercy alone, not in human acts of righteousness. In the new perspective, faith is a badge, or identity marker, which can be shared by all, Jew and Gentile.

The new perspective does not necessarily deny the traditional meaning of faith, but rather finds its focus elsewhere. Faith remains central to Paul's doctrine of justification, because it means that Gentiles do not need to become Israelites when they become Christians. According to the new perspective, Paul accentuates this point in the early chapters of his letter to the Romans.

Galatians makes the same point in a different setting. Here, Paul finds the problem inside the church. Galatians 2 breaks the rules of good storytelling with a happy beginning and a sad ending. Initially, Peter and Paul agree at their meeting in Jerusalem about law-observance not being necessary for Gentiles (Gal. 2:1-10). Later, in Antioch, Peter rebuilds the barrier between Jews and Greeks. Nervous about his reputation as a traditional Jew, he withdraws from table fellowship with the Gentiles (2:11-14). Paul considers this move a disaster. So he castigates Peter and reminds him how faith and faith alone—not works of the law—mark people out as belonging to God's covenant (2:15-16). Faith means that Jew and Gentile must eat together.

Following this pattern, justification by faith and not by works of the law focuses on God's acceptance not only of Jews but also of Gentiles. Some have argued that Paul makes this point most clearly in Romans 3:28-30: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law [literally, "apart from works of the law"]. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith." Advocates of the new perspective tend to read this passage as a statement about God welcoming Gentiles, who then need not observe Jewish practices, such as Sabbath-keeping, circumcision, and a kosher diet. This interpretation would then be confirmed by what follows: a focus again on the fact that God is not the God merely of a single nation, but of Jew and Gentile alike (verses 29-30).

The New Perspective Assessed

The new perspective cannot merely be written off as a disaster from start to finish, as some critics would have us believe. One of the most important benefits of the new perspective on Paul is that it accentuates the worldwide focus of God's dealings in Christ. Paul uses justification to highlight how all Christians, Jewish and Gentile, come to God on the same basis—that of faith.

The new perspective also elevates our historical awareness of Paul's situation. There are certainly important ways in which Paul's debate with his Jewish contemporaries anticipates later controversies—between Augustine and Pelagius, for instance, and to a lesser extent between Luther and his opponents. But we must not read Paul merely with our favorite debate from church history in mind. E. P. Sanders rightly detects in much of the traditional Protestant description of Judaism an anxiety about Roman Catholic works-righteousness crouching at the door. This leads us to Sanders's concern with portraying Judaism in a fair and unprejudiced light. This is also an important contribution: There can be no place in the church for cheap caricatures of Judaism. Sanders has encouraged scholars to look seriously at Jewish sources around the time of Paul to understand what they really say.

[Thus, we are show a sensitivity and correctness towards understanding OT Jewish culture wrapped around the OT covenant AND have the same attitude towards the NT Jewish apprehension of the NT covenant in Christ by renewing their cultural commitments from the OT. But realize that these practices were not necessary to be a Christian according to Paul. That Jewish practice can alienate and divide the one new man however much a Gentile Christian wishes to show appreciation of the bible’s Jewish heritage. That the new covenant says through Paul that Jewish customs may be abandoned because it is faith in Christ that binds all now – not human religious practices of any kind. – sh]

Nevertheless, other scholars have shown that Sanders himself presents a one-sided view in his reaction against the one-sided traditional view of Judaism. So the close examination of these sources is still an important area of scholarly research. We also need to be careful in how we talk about Judaism from the pulpit and in our conversations about Scripture. Christians must avoid cheap caricatures as well as a politically correct anxiety about saying that Jews need to hear the gospel.

Similarly, when pastors preach on the Gospels and Acts, they must distinguish between criticism delivered by Jesus and Paul against their contemporaries, on the one hand, and their high regard for the law of Moses on the other. Some Jews in the first century clearly did interpret the law in a way that imposed strictures foreign to the Torah. But we must not criticize the law itself, as if it were a body of petty rules and regulations. To do so would be to criticize God himself. His law is "holy, righteous, and good" (Rom. 7:12).

Six Tendencies

On the other side, there are a few points at which the new perspective is, in my judgment, at fault.

1. We need to go back to E. P. Sanders and his insistence that Judaism in Paul's day did not think in terms of salvation as something earned or gained by obedience to the law. Now it is certainly the case that Protestant scholarship had previously exaggerated this fact, but it is not wrong either. Documents from around the time of Paul state that some Jews believed obedience to the law was rewarded on the final day with salvation: "The one who does righteousness stores up life for himself with the Lord" (Psalms of Solomon, c. 50 B.C.). "Miracles, however, will appear at their own time to those who are saved by their works" (2 Baruch, c. A.D. 100). There are a number of examples like this. Paul's understanding of justification makes sense, then, as a criticism of law observance as the means to eternal life (see Rom. 3:20). Many of Paul's contemporaries seem to have believed that obedience was possible without a radical inbreaking of God.

For Paul on the other hand, salvation was impossible without the earth-shattering events of the Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost. I mentioned previously that for Sanders, observance of the law was merely how people stayed in the covenant that God had already established. But obedience for Paul was no mere formality. It took mighty acts of God to make it possible.

2. Does Paul think primarily of circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food laws when he uses the phrase "works of the law"? My own view, and that of a number of other scholars, is that Paul focuses on observance of the law as a whole. Works of the law simply means doing the law—the law in its entirety. So the issue at stake with works of the law is not so much Jewish identity as the ability of Israelites as human beings to obey the entire law. We shall return to this point later.

3. Criticism of "individualistic" readings of Paul can throw the baby out with the bathwater. Some new perspective scholars want to guard against individualistic understandings of justification. Seeing faith to be transcultural, available to both Jew and Gentile, these scholars shift the emphasis from personal conversion toward the larger canvas of God's dealings in salvation history. But we cannot escape the dimensions of conversion and personal faith in Paul. These are vitally important: The church is not a lump of humanity, but an assembly of individuals. Faith according to Paul is exercised by individuals (e.g. Rom. 4:5; 12:3; Gal. 2:20), and is also a feature of churches (e.g. Rom. 1:8; Col. 1:4). Individual and corporate faith are not at odds with one another.

[Meaning, we personally show faith in Christ and participate in this faith with other believing assemblies of all colors, races and practices – from buddhaistically converted Gentiles to Islamically-converted Gentiles. In Christ we have become one new race, a remnant of God, elected to share his love to all men without cultural prejudice or nationalistic flare and zeal. And that we are no more, no less, Christians if Jewish or observing Jewish customs. We are not two bodies of Chris, but one. – sh]

4. A further tendency of the new perspective is to confuse the content of justification with its applications. It is true to say that justification by faith is about including Gentiles into the people of God. But it is essential to see that the core meaning of justification by faith is about how believers, despite their sin, can be reckoned as righteous before God. Then we can speak of the scope of justification, which is for all who believe, from every tongue, tribe, and nation. Unfortunately, in some hands, the emphasis on inclusion as a primary component of justification can have two further effects.

5. Seeing justification as primarily addressing how Gentiles can be incorporated into the people of God can lead to a downplaying of sin. This approach to justification can lose sight of Paul's vital concern for how sinners can be made righteous. One leading New Testament scholar has described his view of justification as God building an extra room in his house for Gentiles. But this view neglects the fact that Israelites as well as Gentiles are sinners and need to be justified [through Christ from sin's penalty and through the Spirit from sin's legacy and hold on our life - sh].

6. Since the emphasis in some discussions of justification is on inclusion, tolerance, and ecumenism, there can be a tendency to downplay the importance of doctrinal clarity. One recent commentary on Romans emphasizes mutual acceptance as the key to the book. It is revealing that the commentator then regards Romans 16:17-20 as a later interpolation, because the passage emphasizes teaching doctrine and staying away from heretics. Paul insists, however, that unity and doctrine are not mutually exclusive. True unity comes not at the expense of doctrine, but precisely around the central truths of the gospel.

Once again, it needs to be remembered that the new perspective does not put forward a single, united front. As a result, these criticisms will not all apply to one person at the same time. They are, however, tendencies to keep an eye out for when studying the new perspective.

Hard Hearts Need Justification

It's not enough, though, to interact with scholarship about Paul. We also need to understand what the Bible teaches about justification.

"God is the justifier!" (Rom. 8:33). The triune God, out of his great love, sent his Son to die as a substitute. On this basis, he justifies believers (Rom. 5:1-11). But what happens in the event of justification? The word itself has been interpreted in a number of different ways, so it's helpful to turn to biblical passages that define it. The apostle Paul derives his definition from the Old Testament—specifically, Genesis 15:6: "What does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness'" (Rom. 4:3, quoting Gen. 15:6).

In the Old Testament, "righteousness" is the status that an Israelite received when he or she fully observed the requirements of the law: "And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness" (Deut. 6:25). The tragedy of the covenant, however, is that despite God's glorious provision of redemption and of his Torah, the Israelites often behaved just like Gentiles. Stiff-necked and hard-hearted, they rebelled against God. They never attained the status of righteousness, which they would have possessed had they lived up to the ideal in Deuteronomy.

But this status of righteousness is precisely what is granted to those who have faith in Christ. Although these former idolaters traded in the glory of God and disobediently suppressed the truth, God now declares them righteous—declares them to have fulfilled everything in his presence that he has commanded. This "in his presence" (or "before the Lord our God" in Deut. 6:25) is important. Justification, in which righteousness is reckoned to us, is both a legal declaration of our status and a statement about our relationship with God. People who are sinners are declared by God to have done all that he has commanded.

This justification, made possible through the cross of Christ, means we don't need to be anxious before God. There is nothing that can come between the justified person and the everlasting blessing of life with God on the other side of Judgment Day. The phrase from Romans 8:33, "God is the justifier," is Paul's answer to the question of whether it is possible for anyone to bring a charge against God's elect. Of course not! Paul is almost certainly alluding here to Isaiah's great testimony about the Lord:

He who vindicates me is near.
Who then will bring charges against me?
Let us face each other!
Who is my accuser?
Let him confront me!
It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me.
Who is he that will condemn me?
They will all wear out like a garment;
the moths will eat them up
(Isa. 50:8-9).

Justification by Faith

Faith is another term that Paul helpfully defines. (Paul isn't always as difficult to understand as he is cracked up to be!) He returns to the Genesis narrative and Abraham's response to God's promise, offering this clear description of faith: "Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, 'So shall your offspring be.' Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah's womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why 'it was credited to him as righteousness'" (Rom. 4:18-22).

We can see from this passage three particularly important aspects of faith (or believing—they are forms of the same word in Greek).

1. Abraham recognized the futility of his own future without God and God's help. God promised that Abraham's descendants would be as numerous as the stars, yet humanly speaking this was impossible: Abraham "faced the fact that his body was as good as dead," and when he did trust God, it was "against all hope." So trusting God is not something we simply add on to our life. Christian faith requires a complete reorientation of our whole attitude.

2. But faith is not merely an attitude—it is also the response to God's specific promises. In Abraham's case, his faith answers the divine word, "So shall your offspring be." Faith is not content-less humility that places our hope in a higher power. No, in faith we answer the divine word and its specific verbal content. God speaks, and we believe in him in response to his word. God made particular promises to Abraham, and in Romans 4, Paul goes on to say that God promises justification to those who trust in him as the one who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 4:23-25; see also Rom. 10:9).

3. Faith focuses not only on what God has said but also on his character. Abraham trusted that "God had power to do what he had promised." Biblical faith mirrors God, the object of that faith. In everyday life, we generally have different kinds of faith in different people, according to the nature of the relationship. We have a certain kind of faith in a spouse, another kind in a doctor, and a different sort in relation to a pastor or a friend. By telling us who God is, the Bible defines what kind of faith we must place in him: He is the God who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5), who creates out of nothing (4:17), and who raised Jesus from the dead (4:24). Utterly all-powerful, he wields that power to bring righteousness where there was none, creation where there was none, and life where there was none. That's the God we believe in.

Not by Works of the Law

So what is wrong with works of the law? They are associated with the flesh, Paul answers. (The NASB helpfully preserves the old-fashioned sounding flesh, for a more literal translation of the key passages.) "Works of the law" means obedience to the law done outside of Christ, without the new-creating power of the Holy Spirit. In this condition, it is clearly impossible to observe the law, "because by the works of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20, NASB). Paul has seen this borne out in Israel's history. Even this nation "entrusted with the very oracles of God" (Rom. 3:2), given a law that was "holy, righteous, and good" (Rom. 7:12), could not please God.

The flesh is powerless to obey. "For what the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did" (Rom. 8:3, NASB). Trying to obey the law through the flesh is like trying to climb a sheer rock face with no foothold or handhold, without equipment. It can't be done.

In fact, the problem runs deeper than the flesh's weakness. The flesh even wars with God: "Because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so" (Rom. 8:7, NASB). Do revolutionaries follow the law? No—they seek to overthrow it. We sometimes present sin as people's failure in varying degrees to reach God's standards. But Romans 8:7 shows that we do not even start to please God. The problem with works of the law, according to Paul, is that stiff-necked human beings, left to their own devices, cannot get anywhere near pleasing God.

Paul makes it clear to the Romans that God reckons righteousness purely by grace. He stresses that God is the sole operator in salvation. There is no place for the program offered by the law, that "if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness" (Deut. 6:25). As we have seen, it is not that we have accomplished some successful law-observance that needs to be topped off by God to make a full quota. No, we have not left the starting blocks as far as righteousness is concerned. God acts so that it is obvious to all that he alone does the whole saving work. "And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace" (Rom. 11:6).

At its core, the doctrine of justification says that sinners can be miraculously reckoned righteous before God. This happens for all who believe and has nothing to do with observance of the law, which for sinners is impossible. With this foundation in place, we can move on to see how Paul uses the doctrine of justification by faith. The new perspective rightly observes that Paul uses justification to argue that Gentile Christians need not take on the yoke of the law (Galatians) and that Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians should live together in harmony (Romans 14-15). While we must not neglect these demands, we should not allow the tail to wag the dog.

Simon Gathercole is senior lecturer in New Testament at the University of Aberdeen. He was recently appointed a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, starting in October.

Justification - Piper v. NT Wright


The Justification Debate: A Primer
Two of the world's most prominent pastor-theologians on justification—and what difference it makes.

John Piper and N.T. Wright, compiled by Trevin Wax
posted 6/26/2009

Since Christianity Today's August 2007 cover story, "What Did Paul Really Mean?" Piper and Wright have taken the debate on justification from the academy to the masses. Here is where the two evangelicals differ.

(Download a PDF of this article from the link above).

John Piper: Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Author of The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright.

N.T. Wright: Bishop of Durham, Church of England. Author of Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision.

The Problem

Piper: God created a good world that was subjected to futility because of the sinful, treasonous choice of the first human beings. Because of this offense against the glory of God, humans are alienated from their Creator and deserve his just condemnation for their sins.
Wright: God created a good world, designed to be looked after and brought to its intended purpose through his image-bearing human beings. This purpose was thwarted by the sinful choice of the first human beings. Because of human sinfulness, the world needs to be put to rights again and its original purpose taken forward to completion. God's purpose in putting humans "right" is that through them, the world can be put to rights.

The Law

Piper: God revealed himself through the Law, which pointed to Christ as its end and goal, commanded the obedience that comes from faith, increased transgressions, and shut the mouths of all humans because no one has performed the righteousness of the Law so as not to need a substitute.

Wright: God made a covenant with Abraham in order to set in motion his plan to rescue his world through Abraham's family. God gave his people the Torah, his holy Law, as a pedagogue—a way to keep Israel, God's wayward people, from going totally off track until the coming of the Messiah. Israel was supposed to embody the law and thus be a light to the nations. But Israel has failed at this task.

God's Righteousness

Piper: The essence of God's righteousness is his unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of his name in all he does. No single action, like covenant keeping, is God's righteousness. For all his acts are done in righteousness. The essence of human righteousness is the unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of God in all we do. The problem is that we all fall short of this glory; that is, no one is righteous.

Wright: God's righteousness refers to his own faithfulness to the covenant he made with Abraham. Israel has been unfaithful to this commission. What is now required, if the world's sin is to be dealt with and a worldwide family created for Abraham, is a faithful Israelite who can be faithful to the covenant in Israel's stead.

First-Century Judaism

Piper: Many Jews in Jesus' day (like the Pharisees described in the Gospels) did not see the need for a substitute in order to be right with God, but sought to establish their own righteousness through "works of the Law." Whether keeping Sabbath or not committing adultery, these works became the basis of one's right standing with God. The inclination to rely on one's own ceremonial and moral acts is universal, apart from divine grace.

Wright: Jews in Jesus' day believed that the Law was given to them as people who were already in covenant with God. Therefore, the Law was not viewed as a way to earn God's favor, but as a sign that one was already in covenant with God. The "works of the Law" are not ways to earn favor with God, but badges of covenant identity by which one determines who is in the covenant and who is not. Many Jews in Paul's day were clinging to these identity markers (Sabbath, circumcision) in a way that made their Jewish identity exclusive. Therefore, their exclusivism was keeping the promise of God from flowing to the nations.

The Gospel
Piper: The heart of the gospel is the good news that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead. What makes this good news is that Christ's death accomplished a perfect righteousness before God and suffered a perfect condemnation from God, both of which are counted as ours through faith alone, so that we have eternal life with God in the new heavens and the new earth.

Wright: The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord.

How This Happens

Piper: By faith we are united with Christ Jesus so that in union with him, his perfect righteousness and punishment are counted as ours (imputed to us). In this way, perfection is provided, sin is forgiven, wrath is removed, and God is totally for us. Thus, Christ alone is the basis of our justification, and the faith that unites us to him is the means or instrument of our justification. Trusting in Christ as Savior, Lord, and Supreme Treasure of our lives produces the fruit of love, or it is dead.

Wright: God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ (the faithful Israelite), has come, allowing the continuation of his plan to rescue human beings, and, through them, the world. The Messiah represents his people, standing in for them, taking upon himself the death that they deserved. God justifies (declares righteous) all those who are "in Christ," so that the vindication of Jesus upon his resurrection becomes the vindication of all those who trust in him. Justification refers to God's declaration of who is in the covenant (this worldwide family of Abraham through whom God's purposes can now be extended into the wider world) and is made on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ alone, not the "works of the Law" (i.e., badges of ethnic identity that once kept Jews and Gentiles apart).

Future Justification

Piper: Present justification is based on the substitutionary work of Christ alone, enjoyed in union with him through faith alone. Future justification is the open confirmation and declaration that in Christ Jesus we are perfectly blameless before God. This final judgment accords with our works. That is, the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives will be brought forward as the evidence and confirmation of true faith and union with Christ. Without that validating transformation, there will be no future salvation.

Wright: Present justification is the announcement issued on the basis of faith and faith alone of who is part of the covenant family of God. The present verdict gives the assurance that the verdict announced on the Last Day will match it; the Holy Spirit gives the power through which that future verdict, when given, will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived.

Justification - An Emergent Perspective

To be honest, I was born and bred in Inauguration Eschatology and Rachel's article below shows the demands that the Kingdom of God places upon us as his faithful remnant.  It's neither Piper nor Wright, neither traditional evangelicalism's message nor the newer, more complete emergent message, its both. Both combined. Together. One expression in complete duality.

So that the "soteriological atonement" aspect of our faith is as important as it's practical-other seen through our "faith-works" in/by/of/for Christ."  And, of course, choosing a church fellowship focuses our behavioral-practices within that fellowship's specific positional distinctives of "faith" and "works" as they are highlighted within that fellowship's local/global ministries and message.  It is a false claim to say "I follow truth" or "I follow love" when in actuality we should be striving for both - with an overweight to the side of love (aka the Apostle Paul, 1 Cor.13.1-13... "the greatest of these is love").

Which answers for me the appeal that emergent Christianity holds for me... it completes my bias of seeing the Kingdom of God beginning to work itself out within the tension of the church age in the "here-but-not-yet" (or, "here-but-not-fully"). And like Christ (sic, 2 Peter), we suffer like our Lord Jesus, we die like our Lord Jesus, and we'll rise like our Lord Jesus, until Jesus comes for his church and ushers in his further kingdom. His "kingdom example" is our "kingdom example" for as long as it takes for the church age to cycle towards the completion of God's purposes. Amen and Amen.




Is the Gospel Relative?

by Rachel Held Evans
October 7, 2009

As you may know, one of the most talked-about debates between the traditional church and the emerging church has to do with the gospel. Traditionalists claim that emergers have reduced the gospel to social justice to the neglect of atonement soteriology and personal salvation, while emergers claim that traditionalists have reduced the gospel to personal fire insurance to the neglect of Jesus’ teachings regarding the Kingdom of God.

It’s a topic that Jim Belcher recently explored in Deep Church, and it’s a topic that has led to some theological hair-splitting over the past few years, as NT Wright and John Piper debate the meaning justification. (For a comprehensive discussion of Deep Church, check out Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog. For a nice overview of the justification debate, check out this article from Christianity Today - http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/june/29.34.html.)

I always get a little nervous when I encounter a bunch of theologians arguing over the meaning of the gospel, each armed with his own sophisticated definition of it. I suppose that it’s the recovering fundamentalist in me that wants to ask, “Shouldn’t the gospel be simpler than this?” “Shouldn’t it be easy to understand and explain?” “Shouldn’t we all be on the same page on something this important?”

Having grown up in the conservative evangelical subculture that cast salvation as little more than a ticket out of hell that you cash in on Judgment Day, I’ve personally been enthralled and challenged by the emerging church’s perspective on the Kingdom of God. It has inspired me to reconnect to the life and teachings of Jesus, as opposed to only focusing on his death. And it has encouraged me to think of salvation in terms of God’s plan to restore and repair the whole world, as opposed to thinking of it in terms of individualistic escapism. With the help of NT Wright, I feel that this perspective has complemented, not replaced, my belief in atonement. In fact, discovering the gospel of the kingdom has been a bit like being born again…again. It’s like encountering, dare I say it, GOOD NEWS for the first time!

It seems to me that both the emerging and traditional perspectives on the gospel are important, and that perhaps the novelty of one appeals the most to those who started with the other. In other words, folks who grew up with the social gospel might need a dose of substitutionary atonement to save them from pride, while folks who grew up with the fire insurance gospel need a dose of the kingdom perspective to save them from self-focused individualism. In this case, it seems to me that the gospel, or the “good news,” is a bit relative—because the part of it that is news is relative to the person receiving it.

In fact, I think we could resolve some of the current conflict by acknowledging that there is no one set definition for the gospel, that everyone experiences Jesus a little differently.

Matthew responded to the good news that Jesus did not come to call the righteous but the sinners. The bleeding woman responded to the good news that her simple act of faith in touching Jesus’ clothes had made her well. The Samaritan by the well responded to the good news that everyone who drinks of the water of life will not thirst again, no matter how sinful their past. The Apostle Paul responded to the good news that Jesus loved his enemies enough to transform and use them. The Athenians responded to the good news that God does not dwell in temples made with hands.

For years I just assumed that the Gospels were incomplete, that we only caught a glimpse of Jesus’ interaction with these people. I figured that some time after the initial meeting, he must have sat down and walked his new converts through the Romans Road, just to make sure they really understood the gospel in all of its soteriological glory. In fact, it used to frustrate me that the story of Jesus contained no one-size-fits-all method of evangelism. But now I find it quite beautiful.

It seems to me that what makes the gospel good and what makes the gospel news is relative to the person receiving it.

For the legalist trying to earn God’s favor through good behavior, the bad news is that works of righteousness are not enough impress a holy God; the good news is that salvation is a gift. For the victim of war struggling to connect with a God who allows so much evil in the world, the bad news is that mankind’s rebellion has turned the planet into battlefield; the good news is that God loves the world and has a plan to ultimately heal, restore, and redeem all of creation.

For the child of fundamentalism whose self-loathing and guilt keep her from experiencing God’s peace, the bad news is that God is angered by sin; the good news is that her sins were atoned for on the cross. For the child of rape who struggles to forgive, the bad news is that she suffered a terrible injustice; the good news is that Jesus did too and he wants to fellowship with her in her suffering. For the elderly facing death, the bad news is that everyone dies; the good news is that Jesus rose. For the relief worker who strives for decades to help bring peace into the world, the bad news is that his work is not done; the good news is that God will complete it.

Some discover the good news in the story of the incarnation. Some discover the good news in the Sermon on the Mount. Some discover it in the cross. Some discover it in the resurrection. Some discover it in the kingdom to come. And some rediscover it every day in all kinds of surprising places.

While the gospel always includes themes of sin and redemption, brokenness and setting things right, we cannot be so arrogant as to expect everyone’s experience with it to look just like ours.