Monthly Archives: January 2010

Romans 6 and the Great Commission

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? (6.1) What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?  (6.15a)

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (6.2) By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? (6.15b, 16)

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (6.3ff)

by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed… (6.17ff)

by teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

(Note, I have said that I don’t think 6.1 has been understood.  I should note that by 6.15 we do seem in more “traditional” territory.)

Circumcision and Law in Romans

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law by nature, do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.

So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?

So much text to free associate; so little time.

If God is in control, then why ask him for things?

I was driving down I-240 from the Saint Louis Airport to my (rather temporary) home in Fenton, Missouri, when I realized that I was an atheist.

This was not a proud moment for a seminary student who aspired to serve God in the pastorate. Thankfully, I was granted repentance.

What had happened was this: An elderly lady in the church my wife and I attended had been told that she must have her leg amputated immediately. The surgery would be radical, going all the way to her hip. We were to pray for her. That was what I was trying to do as I drove home from work that day. I was trying to pray for her.

How do you pray for someone in that situation? I prayed for her courage, for her doctor to be given wisdom and skill, for her own spiritual growth. But even praying silently I kept avoiding the H-word in my mind. I was avoiding even considering the possibility of healing, let alone praying for it. It didn’t feel right. And at some point on the drive home I asked myself (perhaps out loud): “Mark, why don’t you pray for God to heal her?”

Indeed, why not?

I had to face the fact that I was afraid. I was afraid that if I asked God to heal this lady and God answered my prayer by saying “No,” that I would have to face a crisis of faith. The reason for this crisis would be the fact that God’s answer to my prayer would be the same as what would happen if there was no god who answers prayers. If I prayed and nothing happened I would have to deal with a temptation to doubt God. By not taking the risk, I was avoiding a trial of faith.

But as soon as I confronted my fear I realized that my unconscious strategy was self-destructive. To refuse to pray is the decision of an atheist or a deist, not that of a Christian. Atheists don’t believe in God and deists believe in a world-maker who left us with a self-powered universe to which he pays no attention. Such people do not pray because prayer does nothing. Christians, on the other hand, pray because God is in control. God answers the prayers of his people. Indeed, because God is in control of the world ultimately, God’s people–through prayer and worship–are in control derivatively.

I realized two things that day. First of all, I realized that acting like a deist or an atheist was a stupid way to avoid the temptation to be a deist or an atheist. In a real sense, I was giving in to temptation ahead of time so I wouldn’t have to struggle with resisting it later. If I continued to limit my prayers to natural things that might happen anyway, I would be fostering unbelief in my heart. I can’t think of an easier way to slide into faithlessness than to act faithless while praying. Surely, letting doubt infiltrate one’s times of direct communication with God has to be a dangerous thing. Think of James’ warning:

But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways (James 1:5-7).

To craft safe easily managed prayers that only ask for things that might happen anyway does not comport well with James’ warning.

The second thing I realized is that my assurance that God is in control could easily decay into a passive fatalism. Deism is supposed to be exactly the opposite of a strong confidence that God is actively overseeing all that happens according to his wise plan. But it is quite possible for people who believe that God is in control to act exactly like Deists. Deists don’t pray because the world’s course is not affected by God. Zealots for God’s control don’t pray because they think the world’s course is set by God so that they should ever expect God to change it. The two positions seem opposite but the believers in a managing God could easily act exactly the same as a deist would. Belief that God is in control of the world degenerates into a belief that the way the world is reveals God’s plan.

As I said, God was merciful. I repented. I confessed to God that I was afraid to ask him to deliver this sister in the Lord from having her leg severed from her body. I was afraid because I He might say “No.” That was certainly his right. But it was my right and duty to beg him to do otherwise. So I was begging. Save her leg. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

God spared her leg. The next time she was examined the doctors found things weren’t so bad after all and they canceled the amputation.

Later that week my wife and I took part in a Bible Study. Everyone there had known about the impending amputation and the fact that she wasn’t going to have to go through it was a hot topic for conversation that night. It was interesting. One person especially admitted that he had thought about praying for her healing but had decided not to do so because, after all, God had decreed all things. Since God had already decreed everything that would happen there was no point in praying that he would change his mind and do something different.

I objected. No, God had revealed to us what he intended to do. According to all that the medical experts could see, God had decided to take this woman’s leg away from her. But after God’s people prayed to him to have mercy on this sister in Christ, he relented and showed a new determination by altering the situation.

I didn’t say this as someone who thought that God had been ignorant about the future or unsure of what he was going to do. I would insist, as we will see, that God must have planned for this woman to be in a position where the doctors were forced to amputate her leg. God must have planned for his people to pray for this woman. And God must have planned to answer their prayers. God must have planned the entire sequence of events: the initial action, the prayer, and the subsequent response.

In other words, it must both be true that our prayer changed God’s mind and that God himself planned for our prayer to change his mind. Seemingly paradoxical perhaps. But true.

We will return to the question as to whether my claim is true at another time. Right now I want to simply point out that it is perfectly possible to believe that God decrees all things and also believe that God changes his mind in response to prayers. A person who believes one of those two things does not have to deny the other. After all, this is no more problematic than stating that God responds to prayer and yet knows the future–something that Christians have confessed for centuries.

Before I end this postI want to point out something else: while prayer is compatible with the claim that God is in control, that God works all things according to his plan, it is not compatible with a God who is not in control.

Think about it. When you pray for someone are you assuming that either you love that person more than God does or that you are more aware of that person than God is? If God’s eternal control must be denied to protect prayer then we have not yet gone far enough. We must not only deny that he plans or even knows the future, but we must also deny that he has knowledge of or interest in the present. Avoiding the apparent tension in our thinking simply leaves us with more problems, unresolvable ones.

The argument goes like this: If God has already planned every detail that ever happens, then prayer is useless. The fact that we pray for things means that the future must be truly contingent upon what we as creatures do with no eternal decree determining what must happen in advance.

This strikes many as plausible. When I pray for a friend’s healing or conversion I am praying for things that may or may not take place. To say that the outcome is already planned by a God who is in absolute control of all that happens seems to take away all normal motivation in prayer.

But why stop there? When a Christian prays for another and pleads for him before God’s throne does he think that he loves that person more than God? If not, then why does he argue with God and beg him to act on his friends’ behalf? When the Church prayed for Peter as he was sleeping in Herod’s prison (Acts 12), did they imagine that they cared more for Peter than God did? Did they think that they understood better than God how much the Church needed Peter’s ministry or how much they would miss him?

And what can be said about God’s love can also be said about his knowledge and attention. When we pray to God is that because he is distracted until we get his attention? Did the Jerusalem Church think that God was too busy elsewhere to have learned of Peter’s imprisonment and imminant execution?

Limiting God to “make room” for prayer can only end up with a god who is too limited to be of any more use than an imaginary pagan god. Prayer, in this world view, is really a form of magic that is meant to attract the attention of “higher powers” to get them to aid us.

I think the whole quest to explain prayer by limiting God is simply doomed. We are much better off praying to the true God rather than some alleged god of limited love and knowledge. He, at least, is worth praying to.

Getting a grasp on the New Perspective: Go elsewhere

A Justification Debate Primer |; NET Bible, Bible Study.

I thought this might be a reasonable review, but it is full of so much unnecessary polarization and false dichotomization that it is pretty much useless..

It is entirely possible Wright himself is responsible for some of this problem.  But I fear Evangelicals have been all too quick to grab the worst interpretations and spins in order to leave themselves looking like they must be totally in the right.

Too bad.  Understanding God’s word is not helped by this strategy

RePost:One Night in Galillee

The elders at First Presbyterian Church of Capernaum assembled dutifully but none too cheerfully on a Saturday evening. Sabbath was over and no one was yet as strict on how to think of Sunday since Jesus had risen closer to dawn than the previous dusk. In any case, they simply had no choice but to make a decision before the Lord’s Day meal took place the next day. This was an emergency session.

Gathered round the table were six men. Four were lay rulers and one was a pastor. The four were something of local Christian celebrities for the area. At least, they were celebrities among those who were left since the disciples had left and virtually never came back to the region. Ananias, Joshua, Nathanael, and Simeon had been close friends for their whole lives. They had grown up in the area and become somewhat famous for their relationship to Jesus, not as members of his entourage when he was touring the countryside a couple of decades earlier, but as local supporters. They had gained a reputation because they had taken radical action demonstrating their trust in Jesus.

The pastor was a foreigner. Nicolaus had been raised as a good Pharisee in Alexandria who, upon converting to Christianity, had to flee from his own brothers who thought that they would be pleasing God to get him assassinated. He relocated to Asia and eventually become a pastor before a brief flurry of local persecution forced him to leave quickly. The caravan leaving that night happened to be heading south. One thing led to another and Nic (as he like to be called) found himself a refugee on the shores of the sea of Gallilee.

The visitor we will not name yet, except to mention that some others present had once damaged his property. His presence there was, humanly-speaking, quite coincidental. His mother-in-law had passed away and he had been able to return to deal with some estate issues. Since he was a nationally recognized Christian, everyone was glad that he had been free to return. If he had been busy with church work he would have refused to come, which would have caused more local grumbling in the area about the Gospel.

Nic spoke first. “I realize that it is usually appropriate for one in my place to preside over these proceedings,” he said. “But I have been among you as your pastor for less than a week. I know of many of the congregation from mutual friends or business associates across the lake” (actually, he said “sea,” but he was referring to Gallilee, not the Mediterranean, so I thought it best to paraphrase). “And,” he continued, “you know me by reputation, which is what caused you to take a step of faith and call me to be your pastor and teacher. Nevertheless, I have not been familiar with the person who we are discussing, whereas you three” he gestured to three of the four ruling elders, “have been life-long friends, and you, Simon, are his brother.” He turned to the visitor, “I understand you have met him as well.”

The visitor nodded but looked puzzled. “Ask any question you may have,” said Nic, picking up on the cue. “We are a small enough body that we can be somewhat informal.”

“Thank you,” said the visitor. “I understood you had relocated here three weeks ago after preaching and leading once or twice before.” Nic nodded, as did the others. “Then haven’t you actually met Jude?” the visitor asked. “My meeting with him, while memorable, was quite brief. He never even spoke. So, yes, I met him; but surely you shouldn’t downplay your own more recent acquaintance in comparison to something so brief and so long ago.”

“But I have never met him,” replied Nic. “Brother Simon, why don’t you explain to our honored guest what is going on. And also I will ask you to be the temporary president of our proceedings. I would rather one more familiar with Jude, one who I know loves him greatly, to take the leading part in this unhappy business.”

Simon nodded. Nic had told him before the meeting what he planned to do and he saw the wisdom in it. “Yes, our pastor has never met Jude because Jude has ceased attending Lord’s day worship. He attended sporadically for awhile, but my brother was not attending when our brother and new father Nic came to preach to us those days.”

The visitor said nothing but nodded that he now understood.

“So then,” said Simon, “since we have all confronted my brother today, and since he refuses to be present with us to speak any word good or bad or hear any final exhortation, there is nothing to do but name the offense that is known to all and make our ruling to be announced tomorrow.”

“Just for the record,” asked Nic, wanting the visitor to hear the answer, “how many times have you met with him about this?”

“Many more times than we have with any other offender of this sort,” said Nathanael, barely keeping bitterness out of his voice. “Not three times but three times three, and three times more than that if you count all the private individual attempts that have been made to divert Jude from his present path. The only possible complaint anyone could have regarding these proceedings is that they should have taken place long ago. He was our best friend for so long, and such a renowned person here, it was difficult to bring ourselves to this step.”

“Don’t bee too hard on yourself,” said the visitor. “You are here to do the right thing.”

“Then to name the charges…” said Nic, looking at Simon. He wanted to get the unpleasant business over with.

“My brother,” said Simon, picking up the hint, “has left his wife and abandoned his young children and has taken up with a “concubine”–or so he rationalizes his behavior–that is easily less than half his age. He has claimed the right the Pharisees teach and simply written out a divorce document. But even if that were legitimate, it is an known fact that he himself acknowledges that he was having an affair with this girl and also with others, purchasing various thrills with money that should have supported his family!”

“Then it is time to declare that he has forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins,” murmured the visitor.

“Umm… ” Nic plainly felt uncomfortable interrupting. “Sir, with all due respect I don’t understand how we can say any such thing.”

Everyone looked at Nic in surprise.

“I don’t mean that he should not be declared an unbeliever!” Nic hastily clarified. “I mean that if he were ever forgiven then he would have never fallen away. Forgiveness is forever.”

Joshua laughed in a way that did not sound very happy. Anannias elbowed him, and the rest looked at him with startled expressions.

“Please forgive me, brothers and fathers,” he said quickly. “A certain bitter irony just caught me by surprise. One which I will respectfully share with all of us here in this assembly.” He hesitated for a moment, as one would expect of someone trying to gather their thoughts amid great emotional turmoil. Everyone waited for him to speak.”

“As I believe Ananias, Nathanael, and Simeon will confirm willingly,” Joshua began slowly, “I have been Jude’s closest friend. Since early manhood I believe I have been even more his confident than Simeon.”

He paused and Simeon decided to encourage his friend. “Yes, you are right. You’re own ill health at that time made it convenient for you to spend many hours with him in his room or on the roof when the weather permitted. Your brothers and mine would be out helping our parents. I often wished I could have a few of those hours.”

Joshua smiled grimly. “I can’t say the memory of them is all that pleasant at this time. He would spend many hours telling me what great feats he would do, what heroic actions, if he could only walk. And now that he is healthy, look what he has done with the Lord’s mercy in his life!”

“But let me get back to my point, brothers,” he said, stirring himself out of distant memories. “I bring this up to say that I began to suspect, or rather to feel that something was wrong, long before anyone else and even before any real evidence justified my admonishing him. But I did, as the time when all became clear approached, counsel him to avoid certain temptations and certain directions that could lead to death. He always told me that I had nothing to worry about, because “once forgiven, always forgiven.” Not wanting to turn friendly advice into a theological debate, I didn’t push the issue. But my testimony is this: that his confidence in this matter led directly to his carelessness.”

The visitor spoke up, “Did he never hear our Lord’s parable of the unforgiving servant? It would have taught him not to presume on past forgiveness and may have caused him to turn from his ways!”

Before anyone could answer, Nic spoke up, “What parable is that?”

The visitor looked surprised so Simeon told him, “Our pastor was well-acquainted with Scriptures that we have always had. But until he came here, his acquaintance with our Apostolic writings was limited to the letters Paul has written.” Without explanation Ananias got up and left the room.

“I did get a look at James’ epistle one night staying at the home of Philip,” interjected Nicolaus. “The sermon on the mount, which I am reading now, reminds me of many things I forgot about that letter.”

Simeon nodded. “Yes, Nic has just received a copy of Matthew’s Gospel and probably would have read further except he was called away from his studies to deal with this crisis.” Ananias came back holding a scroll and put it on the table. It was plainly titled so even the visitor, who had not seen that particular copy, knew what it was.

The visitor nodded. “That explains more than just his ignorance of the parable in which we were warned of having our forgiveness canceled.” He reached for the scroll and began going through it to find a passage.

Nic winced as if someone had scraped their fingers across a chalkboard (though I don’t know if anyone knew about chalkboards back then). “I will read the parable and submit to God’s word, of course brothers. But I understand parables are mysteries and need to be interpreted carefully. Until I am convinced I stand by my conviction that we must inform Jude that, assuming he never returns to us, he has proven that he was never forgiven of his sins.

“But he was, Nic,” said Simeon. “There is no point in denying it. We five were all there.”

Nicolaus looked confused.

“It is not just our testimony, actually,” said the visitor. “Here it is in black and white.” He pushed the open scroll to Nic. The visitor was right. There it was in the new Scripture:

And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.

“You see,” said the visitor, who, if you haven’t already figured it out, was the Apostle Peter himself. “There is no way to do this except to declare that he has forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.”

Nic opened his mouth. But then he closed it. The issues were clear before him and he had to make a choice. Was he now going to insist that this meant that Jude was guaranteed to repent. Had Jesus told him and everyone else in hearing distance that Jude was eternally predestined to inherit eternal life? Jesus had forgiven others, he was sure. Were these people singled out for the unique blessing of being told by direct revelation that they were predestined to life. Or was it still possible to warn them against the possibility of backsliding into sin and unbelief and the eternal consequences that would follow from an hardened, impenitent heart? To his credit, the idea that they might still inherit glory while dying as unbelieving apostates never occurred to Nicolaus.

“Maybe I should read that parable before I comment further,” he said, finally.

Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.

You are joined to the new age in baptism

I’ve mentioned that the question in Romans 6.1 is not a question about “Why repent if God always forgives?” but rather a mocking application question, “If God aggravates sin in order to bring about the atonement and grace as a result, then why shouldn’t we follow God’s example?”  It is the same question dealt with in Romans 3.1-8.  In Romans 3, as in Romans 9, with the potter and clay analogy, Paul invokes the uniqueness of God:

But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world?  But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner?  And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.

Paul’s argument seems to that, because we know God will in fact judge all people, they must be responsible for their actions, even if God is using them to bring about his desired results.

In Romans 5, Paul emphasizes how grace abounded in the wake of the many trespasses, increased by the Law.  So in Romans 6.1, the question is, “Are we to remain in sin that grace may abound.”

While N. T. Wright does not give the same analysis of 6.1, he still has some valuable things to say.  He points out that the question is not about “continuing to sin” so much as “remaining in sin”–the age of sin.

So while Paul could have responded to the question the same way as in Romans 3 and 9, here he brings it up with a different agenda.  He wants to point out where we fit in God’s timing.  His point is that we are now on the other side of the shift.  God is no longer increasing trespasses to provide for the condemnation of sin in the flesh; he has brought about the death of that age and the birth of new life in the death and resurrection of Christ.  That is basically what he says in Romans 6.2.

But this is not automatic.  Even though the death and resurrection of Jesus is an objective event and an objective transition in history, it does not necessarily bring about the salvation of everyone.  Thus Romans 6.3-11:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

This passage has been used to say that baptism is supposed to be some kind of burial.  But that cannot be right.  Christ’s burial took place long ago.  His death is past.  The only time we could have been buried “with” him was during those three days after he had died on the cross.  The point is not that we are buried or that we die at some point in our own lives.  Paul could say that but he is not saying it here.  Rather, the point is that when we are “united with him” so that his past history counts to us.

Think about the confession an Israelite was required to make in offering sacrifice to God

And you shall make response before the Lord your God, “A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.” And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God (Dt 26.5-10).

Now here we have an objective, past, corporate fact—the calling of Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, and the conquest of Canaan.  But notice how it is all personal.  God rescued me from Egypt and brought me into the Promised Land.  This would be true of an Israelite even though it was generations later.  It would even be true if his family had come in as Gentile immigrants and proselytes.  As circumcised citizens they would have been required to make this same confession.

Corporate realities apply to individuals.  I tell my children that General George Washington led the continental army and won “our” freedom from the British—and that is true even though I have no idea if my ancestors came to colonial America or if they immigrated after the new nation was born.  I can celebrate the Fourth of July regardless, just as an Israelite could celebrate the Passover regardless of whether his forefathers had been in Egypt or if he came from a line of proselytes who were adopted into a tribe much later.  Each Israelite must confess God’s grace: “the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

“‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt” (Ex 13.14-16).

“When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.’” (Deut 6.20-25).

Read Esther, which ends with all those Gentiles all over the known world becoming Jews.  They all had to follow these laws and say these things.  It happened to other people but they were included in it.  Thus they had the obligation to trust in God and him only.  The First Commandment applied to them complete with the Prologue:  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.”

So if you join to Israel (which for males was effected by circumcision) then Israel’s history counts for you. And if you join to Christ, then his death and resurrection count for you.  If baptism is the way one is officially identified with Christ, then it officially means who have died, been buried, and been raised with Christ, even though he went through these events long ago.

Baptism is not time travel.  It is simply an identification ceremony.

But is Romans 6 really baptism?  Protestants have until recently been virtually unanimous in saying “yes” to this question, along with the rest of the Church throughout history.  This consensus is almost certainly correct.  Paul is plainly writing a letter that is very much driven by the Great Commission.  It begins and ends with it:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ (Romans 1.1-6).

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen (Romans 16.25-27).

If one thinks about the Great Commission it would be surprising if Romans was missing a reference to water baptism.

Remember, despite bizarre stuttering in English translations, Jesus presents baptism as an instrument (not the only one) to discipleship:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and disciple all nations, by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and by teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

There is no need to fear some kind of superstitious transmutation of the water here.  Baptism is simply the ceremony that the Spirit uses to assign people to Jesus.  People are identified to Jesus and taken into his possession, just like an adoption ceremony or a wedding ceremony can relate two people to one another in a specific way.  Just as a Gentile used to have to get circumcised in order to belong to Israel, and then got to eat Passover as if his ancestors were in Egypt, so all who are baptized are regarded as having died to the old age and are now alive in the new age.

Of course, Paul would never play this off against faith (see 1 Corinthians 10.1ff) but for believers, he expects and encourages them to look back on their baptisms as the point of transition in their own lives which unites them to Jesus and the transition he underwent and brought about in his death and resurrection.

Trying to pin it down: Perspective old or new on “works of the law” and the unrighteousness of Israel

And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Coming up with an explanation that covers both data points is challenging.  I think Doug Wilson pointed out that he got Wright to agree that Zacharias might describe Saul the Pharisee as something less than righteous.  That is a good point, and I can’t think of anything that has been said that solves it in easily memorable steps.

But I may be able to offer further clarity on the post I made yesterday (let me know if it adds clarity, obscurity, or if it was already too obscure to say that it is more so now).

As I see it Romans 1-3 goes something like this:

1. God is angry at sin and is punishing it by giving the world over to more sin.

2. Implied question: but you only means the Gentiles, right?

3. Not at all: Have you looked at all the things everyone sees Israel doing lately?

4. Implied question: but doesn’t the special standing that the Jews have give them protection from judgment on these matters?

5. Not at all: God has always saved and loved believing Gentiles and rejected unbelieving Jews.  Gentiles have even been in a position to judge these Jews.

6. So being Israel/being Jewish has never been a guarantee of righteous standing before God.  Both are alike under sin and the Law condemns Israel and therefore condemns the world.

Now, I think I got much of this from Wright.  And I think it works in the text.  No one denies that “the moral law” (violation of basic commands of the decalogue) is involved in provoking the wrath of God.  Nevertheless, “the works of the law” is mentioned in a context that implies it is not directly pointed to whether the Jewish leadership throughout Asia was widely engaged in witchcraft, but is pointed to whether, if that was the case, God would overlook it because they were Jewish.  By the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.

By the way, I left out part of the argument.

7. Just because God faithfully brought about salvation through the unfaithfulness of Israel does not mean Israel is any less guilty.

Long Live God!

[This was a newspaper column that I wrote for the Minco Millennium back in January of 2000 when I had first moved to Minco, Oklahoma to pastor First Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA).]

I wasn’t able to catch the recent performance of the musical, Godspell, in Oklahoma City. However, my dad loaned me his cd of the original recording, and I’ve been listening to it a lot. Especially moving is the next-to-last piece, which begins with the death of Christ (appropriately presented through a killer guitar solo) and then breaks into a very simple joyous refrain: “Long live God!” It is in that chorus, I think, with it’s overtones of royalty, resurrection, and deity, that the musical most truly lives up to its name and really presents listeners with what Jesus and the Apostles (and the Hebrew prophets, in their own premonitory way) referred to as “the gospel” (from the old English godspell).

In the midst of our transition from Auburn, Washington, to our new home in Minco, I missed most of the celebration surrounding the inauguration of our new president. But thinking about it brings the following scenario to mind: Imagine someone coming up to you and saying, “Have you heard about George W. Bush? Would you invite him into your heart right now, so that he can be president of your life?” Or, “Do you feel in your heart that somehow your life is empty because something is missing? Invite George W. Bush to become your personal president and you will feel complete.”

The fact is that such a presentation would be incoherent. You don’t choose whether an inaugurated president is to be the president in your life. George W. Bush is your president, regardless of your decisions, commitments, or feelings for or against him. His inauguration was a public event, and his present office is a public fact. All that I’m saying about President Bush was equally true in regard to Bill Clinton. It was also true in regard to much more dictatorial rulers in the past. For example:

The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a deliverer for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere . . .. ; the birthday of the god [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the gospel that has come to men through him.

I got the above translation (as well as most of the ideas for this column) from N. T. Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said. But the quotation is from an inscription engraved around 9BC. And it uses the same term “gospel” to describe the proclamation of Augustus’ birthday. The Greek term could better be translated as “good news” or “glad tidings.” In the ancient world, the term, “gospel,” was used to describe a regal announcement of the assumption of authority. This could mean the notice of the birthday of a king like it does in the inscription I have reproduced, or it could mean the proclamation of a great victory in battle, or of the ascension to the throne. In essence, it is the victorious cry, “Long live the King!”

Believe it or not, the birth announcement of Jesus uses the term in exactly the same way as the pagan inscription for Augustus. Consider Luke 2:10 & 11 with my bracketed comments:

And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you the gospel of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David [the royal dynasty] there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ [i.e. God’s promised anointed king] the Lord.” [a claimant to the same title which Roman Caesars like Augustus and others claimed for themselves as world rulers and alleged gods]

The office claimed for Jesus was no less public than that of Caesar or any other ruler. One implication of this fact is that “the Gospel” is not simply a message about how to get “saved.” It is rather the announcement of a new King.

Make no mistake; the gospel is the power of God for salvation for all who trust in Him. But the personal results of the message should not be confused with the public nature of its content. Yes, the results of the message of the Gospel for those who trust in this new king is that he will deliver them from all the power of death and darkness because he has triumphed over all such powers. But the content of this message is that a new king is now on the throne. He will one day judge us all.

How will he evaluate our response to his reign? Will we be identified as disloyal subjects or loyal ones? As traitors who refuse to trust him, or as friends who rely on him as their rightful sovereign?

My sincere advice is to start singing, “Long live God!”

RePost: Why Not Get Rid of Doctrine?

I originally wrote this for the Act 3 Journal, which was then known as the Reformation & Revival Journal of the ministry of the same name. I really appreciate John Armstrong for many things and was quite encouraged that he considered this brief essay worthy of publication.

If one raises the issue of “doctrine” and its value to the Church (or lack thereof) one is sure to evoke strong responses one way or another. Defenses of doctrine typically portray the churches of North America as given over to rampant ignorance and even anti-intellectualism. Those who don’t care for doctrine typically pronounce the word in a way that loads it down with loathing. The idea seems to be that doctrine involves a fixation on correct propositions (“correct” according to a doubtful process of over-analysis) at the expense of actual Christian living, joy, and worship.

I think it might help all concerned to try to articulate a critique of doctrine as that word is commonly used.

An Example of the Problem: The Christian “Faith”

To begin with an analogy, let us compound one controversial statement with yet another. The problem with doctrine is much like the problem of “faith” when faith denotes a body of belief. Even though affirming a body of belief is essential to Christian identity and godliness, talking about the Christian “faith” in our current circumstances may do more harm than good.

Imagine an astronomer lecturing on the moons of Jupiter and naming his lecture, “A statement of faith regarding the orbits of Jupiter’s moons.” That is not how we talk about things that are real—about things that actually exist. To be sure, the astronomer would be exercising faith. He would be trusting that his instruments have given him accurate data, that his coursework and background reading about the solar system and the principles of gravitation are accurate, and that his memory is more or less functional as he analyzes the data. His lecture does indeed articulate the things that he believes. Still, he is reporting on facts. The fact that he happens to trust what he is saying is true, or that he expects his audience to trust him as an expert, is never made the object of his study. No, he is not expounding on his beliefs, even if his lecture could technically be described in that fashion. Rather, he is reporting public facts.

Christians report on reality. They make claims about history. Others don’t want to believe what Christians say, but they are too polite, many times, to call them dupes and/or liars. They want to be nice. They don’t want to be disagreeable. So they come up with a way of “honoring” Christian reports without actually believing what they report—without believing that about which they report. They refer to the “faith” of religious people as if it were a body of philosophy or practical self-help methods safely sectioned off from the real world. This allows them to offer Christians a place in society as long as the Christian report about the world remains rather muted and marginalized. (And Christians are encouraged to go along with this lest otherwise they find themselves marginalized to some degree or other—not least by other Christians who are comfortable with the status quo.)

My point here is simple. We must not forget that the Christian faith is actually a report on the world we live in, and important events that have happened therein. Nothing less. Yet the word’s use in wider society is often aimed at denying that very point. Even though we are speaking of what we believe is true, “faith” and “fact” are opposed in the minds of many.

Doctrine or Teaching?

The difference between faith and doctrine is that doctrine has a perfectly good substitute word that avoids its problems. We would be well served to drop the word and use its synonym, “teaching.” Though technically synonymous, the two words commonly have different associations in the minds of English speakers. Doctrine would be less problematic if there was no such word as “doctrinaire”—just as “Christian Dogmatics” and “Dogma” are tainted in today’s language because of the feelings invoked by the word “dogmatic” as it is used in common speech.

But the problem with doctrine is not just an accidental association with negative words. The term doctrine classifies the Church as a certain kind of community. Lots of groups have doctrines. There is communist doctrine; there is the Monroe Doctrine; there is libertarian doctrine. It is not uncommon to even see words like “orthodox” used in these contexts. We can debate whether Leninist doctrine departs from Marxist orthodoxy.

Doctrine has become associated with ideologies, and ideological groups use the word “doctrine” to refer to their statement of principles. These are propositions referring to everlasting truths that apply in every place and at every time. Obviously, the Church has need to use this sort of thing. The distinction between creation and the Creator, for example, is a general truth for all times and places (at least since God created the world).

Story first, Philosophy second

But we must not forget that the Bible spends relatively little time on such principles. It usually simply assumes them. A story about George Washington crossing the Delaware will presuppose the existence of humans and, specifically, the existence of George Washington. One can imagine the story being used by space aliens in a galaxy far away to prove those points, with little or no concern for the American struggle for independence. Nevertheless, the story is not designed to set forth those ideas. The story is not about the existence of the human race or even the existence of George Washington. The story is about what he did. And the story is often told to those who are to view themselves as the beneficiaries of his heroism.

Let’s consider Paul’s letters since they are often mined for timeless truths because they are so didactic.

As people far removed from Paul’s situation, we have plenty of need to pay attention to the presuppositions behind what he says in order to apply them to our own situation. Our theology—our application of Paul’s writings in the context of the whole Bible—need not and probably should not look exactly like Paul’s own writings. Nevertheless, Paul should challenge us not to allow our report on the Gospel story be merely background to a set of “doctrines” which we teach. The story is everything. When we tell the story of George Washington, we are explaining how the world we live in was brought into being. When we tell the story of Jesus we are explaining the beginning of a new creation that is no less real than the United States.

Paul’s doctrine is simply his teaching about Jesus—how God in him has rescued us through obedient submission to death and a victorious resurrection and rule at God’s right hand as the new creation. Romans begins with a two-stage life of Christ as the content of Paul’s Gospel (1.3, 4) and goes on to spell out the implications of the pattern of death and resurrection. Paul insists the story of a king crucified means that Corinthians’ culture of spiritual one-upmanship is wrong (1 Cor 2.2). The crucifixion of the flesh of Christ means that the world divided by the flesh separating Jew and Gentile no longer matters (Galatians 2.20). Like Hebrew parents explaining to their children how God has saved them from Egypt, Paul explains to us how God in his grace has brought us into a new age.

A mindset engaged in mining “doctrine” from Paul will be prone to miss the fundamental fact that Paul is telling and applying a story. The reader will look instead for a generalized philosophy of life. Yes, all of Paul’s teachings are, strictly speaking, doctrines. But the fact remains that the word “doctrine” tends to predetermine for us what sort of message Paul can write to us.

It has become the favored mode of teaching in the Church to produce books that lay out “the truth” in comprehensive form. These books are useful and even essential for certain kinds of tasks. But one cannot get away from the fact that virtually all the letters of Paul are nothing like this. Romans and Galatians are not written as general summary statements in Christian doctrine but are letters directed to specific churches in specific circumstances with specific needs. Pauline theology is, as we have it, almost invariably pastoral theology. If Paul were to teach in our seminaries in the way he has come to us in the Bible, he would be a professor of Practical Theology. And our systematic theology texts resemble Webster’s Dictionary far more than they do the Pauline letters.

If there was a button to push that would eliminate doctrine from our vocabulary, why would one hesitate to push it?

Learning Christ

One of the great virtues of a word like “teaching” which is lacking in its more anemic synonym is that it can overlap with a word like “training.” Doctrine is something one only memorizes from a page. But that is not what the Apostle Paul tells us to learn. In Ephesians 4.17ff he puts us under oath to “no longer walk as the nations do, in the futility of their minds.” After waxing poetic about their “darkened” comprehension, their alienation “from the life of God,” caused by “ignorance,” which in turn is caused by “hardness of heart,” Paul finally becomes positive about what Christians should be like:

But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4.20-24; ESV)

Paul tells us we should not go down the road of the nations because we have “learned Christ.” The person of Jesus as King, Christ, is used as a term for a different way of life. This is not at all uncommon for the Apostle Paul. In fact, many times, when Paul speaks of what Christians should or shouldn’t learn, his emphasis is clearly more on practices and attitudes than on doctrines. We read in Philippians 4.9-11, for example, that what the Philippians had “learned and received and heard and seen” in Paul were things to be practiced. Indeed, Paul goes on to speak of learning to be content, a “doctrine” that I don’t believe was or can be gained from a book. Christians are to “learn to show godliness” in a context that plainly means they are to begin practicing godliness (1 Tim 5.4). And again: “And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (Titus 3.14).

Words Do More than Denote and the Church is More than Words

When God brought Israel out of the wilderness, he did not simply command that they keep the Sabbath, but he trained them with manna. Six days out of the week they had to go outside and gather food. Anything they tried to store would be inedible the next day. On the sixth day, however, the rules changed. They were able to gather more and save it for the next day. On that seventh day no manna appeared on the ground to be gathered (Exodus 16).

Though the Bible is a book of words, not a food distribution system, it still has the tendency to train as part of its teaching. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians does not begin by telling the readers to be thankful, but with a prayer of thanksgiving (Ephesians 1.3ff). Simply by virtue of listening to the reading of the epistle, hearers are caught up in the practice of prayer and worship in response to and trust in God’s amazing grace. The Bible, in fact, is full of songs, which are not simply reducible to “doctrines.” Yes, we can occasionally be helped by a commentary on the Psalms, but we are usually better off if we will simply pray them, rather than insist on getting ideas out of them.

Add to this the fact that a church is more than simply a lecture hall, and what we are to learn there involves more than simply the memorization of formulas and facts.

But as for you, speak what accords with healthy teaching. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. Slaves are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the teaching of God our Savior (Titus 2.1-10; ESV with minor alterations).

Books by older women may be helpful, but the older women themselves are essential. Titus’ speech must be sound, but they can only qualify as sound if Titus’ behavior comports with them.

What Paul wants cannot come out of a book. It comes from a structured community that is shaped by the Gospel in the Spirit. The Bible’s words are essential to that community, but it cannot replace that community. Emphasis on doctrine encourages the illusion that the book is all we need.

But What About Theology?

People typically assume that by opposing doctrine one is opposing theology. But nothing would do more to interest people in theology than to unshackle it from the associations it has with doctrine. In the first place, since there is some need for what doctrine does in dealing with abstract truths, readers need to remember that “teaching” covers all that needs to be done. The only difference is that we are no longer implying that the abstract and the formulaic is the only important aspect of Christian thought and life. Theology remains valuable. I get to keep subscribing to the system of doctrine in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, for example, just in case any of you were worried about my Presbyterian job security.

But what is theology for Paul the apostle? After exhorting us not to walk like the nations (Eph 4.17) Paul proposes a different sort of walk: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5.1-2). For Paul, theology is not (only?) fodder for philosophical analysis, but a transfiguring vision revealed in the cruciform Gospel. We become what we worship, and Paul expects the true God revealed in the Gospel to reshape us. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 10.31-11.1). “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself” (Rom 15.1-3a). God has revealed himself in Christ in such a way that we who learn Christ and thus learn God learn a new definition of what we should be.

This sort of theology leaves room for philosophical questions and abstract summations where necessary, but does not throw the emphasis on that aspect of the Church’s task. Doctrine tends to distract us from all that the Bible offers and that the Church is called to do.

Romans, Wright, and Works of the Law

Diligent Oyster Avoidance.

I can’t find my password at the moment so I’ll address it here.

Am I the only one who thinks that this works better as a defense of Wright’s view (though it may point to clarifications he needs to make) rather than a rebuttal?:

certain things are enclosed by boundaries. The border to a country encloses a way of life. It is not just about being on this side of the border or that one. The boundary markers do not exist in their own right, but are there for a reason, and they mark and point to something else

Here is what I see.  I see Paul saying that both those “of the law” will be justified along those who are believers like Abraham before he was circumcised (Romans 4.14-16):

For if it is those of the law [alone] who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the one of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all

This jives with Paul’s point that Abraham was justified while “ungodly.”  John Murray denies that the term “ungodly” applies to Abraham because he think that “ungodly” has moral connotations and that it couldn’t be explained simply by saying that Abraham was a believer who sins.  I understand Murray’s reluctance, but think his solution is implausible.  Rather, “ungodly” refers to Abraham’s status as a Gentile (see here for more argumentation and contextual evidence).

Now none of this is identical to the term “works of the law” but it does show that the law is firmly enmeshed in questions of Jewish identity whether they alone or right with God.  All this in Romans 4 is further defense and elaboration of an earlier statement:

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.  Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.  Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law (Romans 3.28-31).

How do we avoid the implication that Paul is saying we believe one is justified by faith whether or not he is a Jew?  I simply don’t see any other way to go.  There is no need to bring up monotheism if Paul is saying that “we believe one is justified by faith rather than by being good enough.”  Sure, works of the law cover the entire gamut, but it is the entire thing as given to Israel as part of her special calling and identity.

In fact, if Paul is making a special case for Gentiles here, he would be implying that they are so much worse than Jews that only justification by faith could include them.  And that would be a reversal of all his argumentation in Romans 2 and 3.

In case I am not being understandable.  As I see it the traditional view would demand the following:

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law [that is, apart from any attempt to be morally good or pure enough to be justified].  Or is God the God of Jews only? [because if anyone could be justified by being morally pure enough, it could only be Jews] Is he not the God of Gentiles also? [Who are so much worse than Jews that, if there was any need for a supply of moral good works then we know all the Gentiles would be even more hopeless than the Jews] Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.  Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law (Romans 3.28-31).

But everything in Romans 2-3 has been arguing that there is no such great difference.  Both Jews and Gentiles are alike under sin.