Category Archives: N.T. Wright & NT Theology

Wright’s book against Purgatory

I wrote this a few years ago. But yesterday while doing some clerical work I listened to a horrible and false seminary presentation regarding”the New Perspective” and N. T. Wright, purportedly (and falsely) from a “Reformed” point of view. Rather than waste my time dealing with it, I thought I would just re-post this.

Remembering the Christian Departed
by N. T. Wright
(Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2003)
96 pages

Bishop Nicholas Thomas Wright of Durham has a reputation as a first-rate Evangelical apologist (in the wider British sense of the word, “Evangelical”), historian, and Bible scholar, whose work on Jesus and Paul has earned a wide hearing. However, this short work shows him not in the academy doing history and evangelism but in the Church applying his Biblical knowledge to liturgical and pastoral issues. As an American Presbyterian trying to understand what Wright is addressing as a British Anglican, it took me awhile to get a full appreciation (assuming I have attained such a thing) of Wright’s situation. The book reads like a theological tract at first and then addresses an issue in the Church. But, of course, the theological tract didn’t appear simply because Wright felt like spilling out a few pages from his systematics notes. The liturgical calendar issue, with all its implications, is what provoked the tract.

The issue is this. In Britain, at least (I have no idea how widespread this is globally in the Anglican communion), All Saints’ Day (November 1) has been supplemented with an All Souls’ Day (November 2) and even a “Kingdom Season” before Advent in which worshipers are to meditate on their future hope of “heaven.” The impetus for the November 2 day seems to be that celebrating the sure salvation of the saints seems awfully exclusive, and some want to hold up hope for souls in general. Yet, ironically, as Wright points out, the “hope” for souls actually seems part of a lessening of hope for the saints. The Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory is being re-animated in many Anglican communions. The hope of the saints is not the Biblical “sure and certain hope,” but a vague continuing journey in a disembodied state.

Of All Souls’ Day, Wright tells us, “After attending several of these annual events, I got to the point a few years ago where I decided that, in conscience, I could do so no longer” (p. 47). He obviously feels quite strongly about these issues and has had to deal with them personally. Of course, Wright realizes that the Church calendar itself is a matter of convention and is only as valuable as wise pastoral practice:

There is nothing ultimately obligatory for a Christian about the keeping of holy days or seasons. Paul warns the Galatians against adopting the Jewish liturgical calendar (Galatians 4.10). Elsewhere he declares that those who observe special days do so to honor the Lord, and that those who regard all days alike do so equally in honor of the Lord (Romans 14.5-6). However, many churches have found that by following the liturgical year in the traditional way they have a solid framework within which to teach and live the gospel, the scriptures, and the Christian life (p. 56).

Wright sees that somehow a nineteenth-century revival of Medieval Roman Catholicism within Anglicanism has coupled with Modern Liberalism to give us, at least by strong implication, purgatory for everyone, though a kinder gentler Purgatory that “isn’t very unpleasant, and … certainly not punitive” (pp. 12-13).

Wright obviously wants, instead, the Gospel for everyone, and sees both the Anglo-Catholicism and the liberalism, to be threats to pastoring God’s people. He tries very hard to be calm and persuasive rather than polemical, but his feelings are obviously fully engaged in the issue. After writing about John Henry Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius and how it was “brilliantly set to music” so that it gave a powerful emotional and aesthetic argument for purgatory, he admits: “The reader will deduce, rightly, that I find all this musically glorious, humanly noble, and theologically intolerable” (pp. 9-10).

Thus, for the most part, this little book is a primer on why Anglicans should preserve their Protestant Evangelical heritage. This is not only about Purgatory, but also about how we should regard the saints departed.

Who Count as Saints?
On the distinction alleged between “saints” and “Christians,” Wright insists that Bible gives us a different teaching: “If we are to be true to our foundation charter, then, we must say that all Christians, living and departed, are to be thought of as “saints” (p. 27).

Should We Pray to Saints?
After showing how Hebrews 11, while invoking the saints’ example, remains centered on Christ, Wright goes on to question the invocation of the saints simply on the grounds of an absence of such thing in the Bible: “What I do not find in the New Testament is any suggestion that those at present in heaven/paradise are actively engaged in praying for us in the present life. Nor is there any suggestion that we should ask them to do so.” And again on the same page: “I just don’t see any signs in the early Christian writings to suggest that the actually do that [urge the Father to complete the work of salvation for us], or that we should, so to speak, encourage them to do so by invoking them specifically” (p. 39)


the practice seems to me to undermine, or actually to deny by implication, something which is promised again and again in the New Testament: immediacy of access to God through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit. When we read some of the greatest passages in the New Testament–the Farewell Discourse in John 13-17, for instance, or the great central section (chapter 5-8) of Paul’s letter to the Romans–we find over and over the clear message that, because of Christ and the Spirit, every single Christian is welcome at any time to come before the Father. If then, a royal welcome awaits you in the throne room itself, for whatever may be on your heart and mind, great or small, why bother hanging around the outer lobby trying to persuade someone there, however distinguished, to go and ask on your behalf? “Through Christ we have access to the Father in one Spirit” (Ephesians 2.18). If Paul could say that to newly converted Gentiles, he can certainly say it to us today. To deny this, even by implication, is to call in question one of the central blessings and privileges of the gospel. The whole point of the letter to the Hebrews is that Jesus Christ himself is “our man at court,” “our man in Heaven.” He, says Paul in Romans 8, is interceding for us; why should we need anyone else?

In the Medieval Western Church, in addition to the Church Militant on earth, there were two divisions among the departed, those in Purgatory (“expectant”) and those in glory (“triumphant”).

This, then, is my proposal. Instead of the three divisions of the medieval church (triumphant, expectant, militant) I believe that there are only two. The church in heaven/paradise is both triumphant and expectant [of the resurrection]. I do not expect everyone to agree with this conclusion, but I would urge an honest searching of the scriptures to see whether these things be so (p. 41).

Wright’s theological objections to Purgatory encompass two concerns: justification and sanctification. Purgatory has been understood as a place needed so that believing sinners can fulfill God’s requirement of penal satisfaction and as a place needed to complete the process of sanctification. In both these cases, Wright finds the rationale of Purgatory to be contradictory to what “our foundation charter” teaches.

First, in regards to Purgatory and justification, Wright appeals to the finished work of Christ on the cross: “I cannot stress sufficiently that if we raise the question of punishment for sin, this is something that has already been dealt with on the cross of Jesus (p. 30). He believes that there have been “crude and unbiblical” versions of this doctrine. Nevertheless “the instincts of the Reformers, if not always their exact expressions, were spot on.” Romans 8.3 assures us that sin has already been condemned by God in the flesh of Jesus on the cross. “The idea that Christians need to suffer punishment for their sins in a post-mortem purgatory, or anywhere else, reveals a straightforward failure to grasp the very heart of what was acheived on the cross.”

With regards to sanctification, Wright thinks that the need for purgatory shows a failure to grasp the Biblical teaching regarding the identity of self with the body, and the role of this life in sanctifying the Christian. For those in union with Christ death puts an end to sin. There is nothing left in the intermediate state to “purge.” The believer is instantly sinless and ready for God’s presence (Wright is quite clear, by the way, that there is an intermediate state, and that believers are present with Jesus immediately at death while they wait for the future resurrection). This world, for believers, is Purgatory. Nothing remains in the next but to enjoy God’s presence and wait for the resurrection.

A major part of this book deals with the Biblical stress on resurrection as the believer’s hope, rather than the intermediate state (though Wright firmly believes in such a state). Wright suspects that the idea of people as essentially disembodied souls leads the need for purgatory. The death of the body becomes an insignificant transition in this view. Thus, the soul is left, essentially unaffected, needing increased sanctification. The result throws the entire Biblical pattern out of shape. According to the Epistles and Gospels, “First there is baptism and faith… The word of the gospel, awakening faith in the heart, is itself the cleansing we require” (p. 32). The struggle with sin continues but the “glorious news” is that the struggle with sin in this life, will give way to the triumph of holiness immediately at death. “Or, to put it the way Paul does: if we have died with Christ, we shall live with him, knowing that Christ being raised from the dead will not die again; and you, in him, must regard and reckon yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6.8-11). ‘Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ … and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God'” (p. 33).

To the accusation that this quick and easy sanctification seems “arrogant,” “cocksure,” and “triumphalist,” Wright replies, “there is a note of triumph there, and if you try to take that away you will pull the heart of the gospel out with it.”

When the prodigal son put the ring on his finger and the shoes on his feet, was he being arrogant when he allowed his father’s lavish generosity to take its course? Would it not have been far more arrogant, far more clinging to one’s own inverted dignity as a “very humble” penitent, to insist that he should be allowed to wear sackcloth and ashes for a week or two until he’d had time to adjust to the father’s house? No: the complaint about the prodigal’s arrogance, I fear, comes not from the father, but from the older brother. We should beware lest that syndrome destroy our delight in the gospel of the free grace of God. We mustn’t let the upside-down arrogance of those who are too proud to receive free grace prevent us from hearing and receiving the best news in the world.


This book has many other things including a critique of the novel “Kingdom season” that belongs with ascension rather than before advent, as well as a demythologizing of Mary’s sainthood over against Roman Catholic claims. This might be a great book to give to a Roman Catholic friend since it isn’t so polemical as to simply enrage him or her, but it is nevertheless brutally honest and challenging.

A couple of things Presbyterians will need to be alert to:

First, Wright seems unwilling to rule out the possibility that prayers for the dead might be appropriate. Putting the issue in my own terminology, the question is whether we pray for things that are already happening or promised to happen. Prayers for the dead were rejected by the Reformers as part of the baggage of Purgatory. Obviously, Wright is opposed to any idea that the dead are in a place where they might have to wait or suffer depending on whether or not they receive more or less mercy. All the dead in Christ receive all the same blessings of God’s presence in that estate, and all are still awaiting the resurrection. But according to Wright we can still ask for them what we already know God is doing and going to do.

Second, while I appreciate Wright’s repudiation of universalism and annihilationism and some related statements, I fear his view of sinners ultimately losing their humanity will bring us back to annihilationism (since why bother to torment a nonhuman?). I think Wright’s view of the image of God as vocation has some promise, but we need to remember that God’s call is irrevocable, and will still exist even if people have lost the opportunity to respond to it.

Despite these quibbles, people who have read about N. T. Wright on the internet are probably going to find this little book surprising. More than one source claims that Wright is seeking some sort of convergence with Roman Catholics and is “redefining” (one of the nicer accusations) the doctrine of justification to do so. If this is true then Wright seems to be seriously lacking in strategic intelligence. Why write a book designed to repudiate the cherished beliefs the more Anglo-catholic believers in the Anglican communion? Either Wright’s ecumenical motivations have been overstated or (more likely in my opinion) his desires for unity, no matter how great they are, are simply not strong enough to overturn his core Evangelical commitments which are evident in the theology of this book.

To put it another way, his ecumenicism only exists in an Evangelical framework. His seeking fellowship with Rome entails a desire for them to embrace the truth rather than the error this book is designed to prevent from growing in the Anglican Church. And if that’s the nature of Wright’s ecumenicism, then it doesn’t sound quite as threatening to Protestant Orthodoxy as it is typically described as being. Wanting Roman Catholics to become Protestant in their beliefs is hardly reason for Protestants to be suspicious of Wright.

(In some ways, by the way, I think Wright would be a more accurate Pauline scholar if he had more Anglo-Catholic sympathy. For in such a case his material on gender and ordination to the gospel ministry would probably be substantially better than it is.)

Overall this is a valuable book on what the Bible says about the believers and their hope at death.

Coming up: 2012 is the two decade anniversary of the beginning of Christian Origins and the Question of God

NT & the People of God1992 saw the publication of N. T. Wright’s  The New Testament and the People of God, Volume 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God.

I didn’t know who Wright was until years later, after the second volume had come out. I still don’t know if he will ever finish it.

But the first-two books by themselves will go down in history as some of the most important scholarship to be published in the Christian world. So I’ll be re-reading and blogging through this work in 2012, Lord willing.

In addition to blogging about different sections, I’ll also blog about why I think the series is so important. That might begin before 2012. Or might not. You know how seldom I find the time or concentration to follow up with many promises on this blog.

But I plan to try. So stay tune.

Revisiting the distortion

I found this in the comment of another blog post and think it deserves (non-typological but literal) re-publication:

I have read both volumes of Justification and Variegated Nomism. After reading the first volume (for those who do not know, the one interacting with Sanders’ view of Judaism) I was pleased to find that almost every published review I read (and I read many) had the same opinion of it that I did: excellent (though uneven in quality) collection of essays that critically engage Sanders and a concluding-summary essay (Carson’s) that misrepresents the contributors.

Though the contributors have differing assessments of the adequacy of Sanders’ model for their assigned types of Jewish literature, most think that Sanders’ critique of the traditional view of Judaism (e.g., merit-theology, earning salvation, priority of “works” over “grace,” traditional Lutheran-Reformed views of Judaism, etc.) is correct; many think his “covenantal nomism” model helpfully captures the dynamics of their assigned Jewish works to varying degrees; a common criticism (one of the same ones I have of Sanders too) is that Sanders asks Protestant questions of Jewish sources. Just for fun, one of the authors (Richard Bauckham) doesn’t think Sanders went far enough: Bauckham thinks that 4 Ezra also manifest the pattern of “covenantal nomism.” Those who have read Sanders will know that 4 Ezra was a writing he considered an exception to “covenantal nomism.” He thought it represented good ‘ole fashioned legalism.

Don’t get me wrong, some contributors were more critical of Sanders than others, but they did not advocate a return to the traditional view of Judaism (e.g., legalism, etc.). Some think Philip Alexander’s essay is an exception, but his main critique is mine: stop asking Protestant questions of Jewish sources. Mark Seifrid’s tendentious essay on righteousness language in the Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish sources is also a highly critical exception that remains difficult to take seriously (I doubt many broader scholars would deny that it’s a highly theologically-motivated/slanted treatment of the data). Carson made me laugh when he referenced perhaps the most inane snipped of it in his RTS lectures; how Seifrid points out that “covenant” and “faithfulness” never occur next to each other in the Hebrew Bible. That’s about as persuasive a criticism to broader scholars as me pointing out to folks here that “Christ’s righteousness” is a phrase that never occurs in Paul’s writings.

Carson’s summary essay, however, gives the impression that the contributors were far more critical of Sanders than they actually were and that they were critical of Sanders in ways that they were not. Carson does this primarily through the rhetoric of the “diversity” of Early Judaism; e.g., Sanders is right about some ancient Jewish sources, but in general it’s just so diverse, it’s just so diverse, it’s just so diverse, etc. etc. etc. Overall Carson, through this rhetoric, implies the irrelevance of Sanders’ work for reading Paul. He furthermore implicitly (and this comes through quite clearly in the 2nd volume of the series) leaves open the option of just reading Paul and ancient Judaism the way they’ve always been read. The logic seeming to be that since the Sanders challenge has been overcome, there is now no viable competing alternative to the traditional view.

This is disingenuous historical arguing that only persuades non-specialists and/or people who just want to know that the NPP is wrong and traditional readings are correct. The fact that Sanders’ formulation only applies to a few (and not most) early Jewish sources would in no way certify traditional readings of Paul and cleaned-up traditional articulations of Judaism in the old Lutheran-Reformed mold. One has to offer positive arguments for the traditional readings as well. Given my focus thus far how Carson’s concluding essay to volume 1 misrepresents matters, his suggestion in the RTS lectures that people there just skip all the essays in the volume and read only his introduction and conclusion is…well…humorous to me.

Carson’s rhetoric of “Judaism is just so diverse” is a smoke-screen for smuggling in a cleaned-up traditional view of Judaism. One can see this from his own words elsewhere. See, for example, the revised version of his dissertation, “Despite all the diversity which enriches intertestamental Judaism, certain trends are so clear they can scarcely be ignored. With the partial exception of the Dead Sea Scrolls, legalism is on the rise, and with it merit theology” (Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, 120).

Just to be clear, I too affirm the diversity of Hellenistic and Roman-era “Judaism.” In fact, my own projects seek to deepen articulations of that diversity by emphasizing…well…perhaps more on that when I or others I know who are tracking down the same path publish our thoughts on this : ).

BTW, the main problem with the second volume of the series is that the authors start with “the conclusions” of volume 1, by which they mean what Carson’s concluding essay distortingly lays out. They generally do not grapple with how they need to offer positive arguments for why the traditional questions they still bring to the texts are the most salient and contextually fitting, if that makes sense.

This may be more of a reply than you wanted or expected. A while back I started writing a review-article of the Justification and Variegated Nomism series. Perhaps I will complete and publish it at some point in the future. For now you get part of its basic argument :).

Quite amazing. And, by the way, even if some essential point of orthodoxy was at stake (which is totally not the case), Job’s warning would still apply:

Will you speak falsely for God
and speak deceitfully for him?
Will you show partiality toward him?
Will you plead the case for God?
Will it be well with you when he searches you out?
Or can you deceive him, as one deceives a man?
He will surely rebuke you
if in secret you show partiality.
Will not his majesty terrify you,
and the dread of him fall upon you?
Your maxims are proverbs of ashes;
your defenses are defenses of clay.

The Reformers’ New Perspective

Peter J. Leithart » Blog Archive » Calvin’s New Perspective.

Others were saying this?

How about Heinrich Bullinger:

And indeed one may easily get in trouble here unless one proceeds on the royal highway. For those people who consider only the conditions of the covenant and in fact disregard the grace and promise of God exclude infants from the covenant. It is true that children not only do not observe the terms of the covenant but also do not even understand these terms. But those who view only the sacrament, ceremony, or sign of the covenant count some in the covenant who are really excluded. But if you consider each one separately, one at a time, not only according to the conditions of the covenant but also in terms of the promise or the mercy of God, and the age and reason of a person, then you will realize that all those who believe from among the Jews and the Gentiles are the descendants of Abraham with whom the Lord made the covenant. In the meantime, however, their offspring, that is, their children, have by no means been excluded from the covenant. They are excluded, however, if having reached the age of reason they neglect the conditions of the covenant.

In the same way, we consider children of parents to be children and indeed heirs even though they, in their early years, do not know that they are either children or heirs of their parents. They are, however, disowned if, after they have reached the age of reason, they neglect the commands of their parents. In that case, the parent no longer calls them children and heirs but worthless profligates. They are mistaken who boast about their prerogatives as sons of the family by virtue of birth. For he who violates the laws of piety toward parents is no different from a slave; indeed, he is lower than a slave, because even by the law of nature itself he owes more to his parents. Truly this debate about the seed of Abraham has been settled for us by the prophets and the apostles, specifically that not everyone who is born of Abraham is the seed of Abraham, but only he who is a son of the promise, that is, who is faithful, whether Jew or Gentile. For the Jews have already neglected the basic conditions of the covenant, while at the same time they glorified themselves as the people of God, relying on circumcision and the fact that they were born from the parent Abraham. Indeed, this error is denied and attacked not only by Christ along with the apostles but also by the entire body of the prophets (The One and Eternal Testament or Covenant with God, in Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition, Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker [Louisville, KY: W/JKP, 1991], 106).

That’s a start.

Stop abusing Luke 13.1-5!

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

This is not about “random” natural disasters.

Getting killed by Roman soldiers may have been a wicked use of power on the part of Pilate, but it wasn’t “random” like an earthquake or a tsunami.

The Tower of Siloam could be part of an earthquake, but that is doubtful because then it wouldn’t stand out in the people’s memories. Other buildings would have fallen. Architectural flaw? Over capacity?

I don’t know.

But I do know that Jesus didn’t use it to preach a generic message about how we are all under the curse of sin (Genesis 3) and we are all headed for judgment and need to repent before our life in this world is ended.

It would have been fine if he had done so. The theology works. But he didn’t.

He didn’t.

To begin with, Jesus is not predicting that everyone is going to perish if they refuse to repent. He is more specific than that.

Everyone will be killed by Roman soldiers. Everyone will be crushed by collapsing buildings in Jerusalem.

He doesn’t say, “unless you repent, you will all also perish.” No, he says, “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

As in, the same way.

And nothing in the surrounding context allows us to think that Jesus is addressing the universal human need to be reconciled to God before one’s life on earth ends. It is a true doctrine, but he is not teaching it here. He is teaching about how Israel the nation is headed for a national judgment.

Look at the passage as a whole:

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

“And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

None of this is about going to heaven or hell when you die. It is about the nation about to be judged because it won’t repent. The signs are in the sky but no one cares. They are headed to a confrontation they can’t win, but they refuse to make peace with their adversary. They aren’t bearing fruit but they aren’t worried about being cut down.

Israel was not bearing fruit.

Who was going to judge Israel? What was the judgment going to look like?

Easy. Jesus tells us exactly what the judgment will be. It will be slaughter by the edge of the sword by Roman soldiers in Galilee. It will be people crushed under collapsing buildings in Jerusalem (“Not one stone left upon another,” in one case).

Is this hard to see? Is this not exactly what the Word of God says?

And so Luke tells us elsewhere:

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

And then again we see it:

But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”— a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.

And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

What will happen when their children all grew up to turn into Barabbasses? Would there be anyone left to substitute for them and die for their crimes? No. They would all be crucified. As Josephus wrote a generation later:

So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies.

So Luke 13.1-5 is not about generic sin or generic final judgment. It is about this story of how God’s people, who thought they were being faithful, were actually trading in their duty to bear real fruit for a rationalization for hatred of the nations and rebellion against their empire. This should be a warning to God’s people now, that just because they can claim to pay attention to Scripture, and to faithfully preach his wrath, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily actually being faithful.

Repost: The New Perspective on Moses

[Source, sort of]

Listening to an interview by Mark Dever with Thabiti Anyabwile, I heard Mark use an illustration that I found tremendously helpful. It relates to the question whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God under different names.

He said that we should picture two old classmates from college discussing a common friend from thirty years ago. They begin to wonder if they are talking about the same person. One of them is convinced they are, and the other keeps thinking this is not quite the way he remembers the friend. Finally, they decide to dig out an old yearbook and settle the issue. They open the book, and as soon as they see the picture of their classmate, one says, “No, that’s not who I am talking about.” So it was not the same person after all.

Mark said that Jesus, as he is revealed in the Bible, is the picture in the yearbook. When a Muslim and a Christian, who have been discussing whether they are worshiping the same God, look at God in the yearbook, it settles the matter: “No,” says the Muslim, “that’s not who I am talking about.”

But that is who the Christian is talking about. John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Jesus makes known the invisible God for us to see. In John 14:8, Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” To this Jesus responded, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’” And Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:6, “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

In other words, Jesus is the yearbook picture that settles the issue of who is worshiping the true God and who is not. If a worshiper of God does not see in Jesus Christ the person of his God, he does not worship God. This is the resounding testimony of Jesus and the apostles as we see in the following texts.

  • Mark 9:37, “Whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (See also Matthew 10: 40; Luke 9:48; John 13:20.)

  • John 5:23, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.”

  • 1 John 2:23, “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.”

  • Luke 12:9, “The one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.”

  • John 15:23, “Whoever hates me hates my Father also.”

  • 2 John 1:9, “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.”

Now, if we take this question back several thousand years and turn a Muslim-Christian question into a Pharaoh-Moses-follower question, the same thing emerges. Was Pharoah worshiping the same God that the followers of Moses were worshiping? I don’t mean to imply that every Egyptian was the same. For example, the mixed multitude that followed Israel out of Egypt (John 3:1ff.) did not seem to be of the same spirit with most (though even they show no evidence of understanding the place of regeneration in the ordo salutis). In asking this question, I am simply referring to the group of Pharaoh-followers in general as Moses saw them. Did Pharaoh worship the same God as the followers of Moses?

This question is even more striking than the Muslim-Christian question, because Pharaoh and followers of Moses had the same heritage of past salvation in Joseph. Why would the question even come up about whether Pharaoh and the followers of Moses worshiped the same God?

Because Moses brought it up. And the way he brought it up and talked about it, makes it hard to believe some of the things that the New Perspective on Moses (NPM) says about the Egyptian leaders of Moses’ day. E. P. Sanders is the main spokesman for the way Pharaoh is reinterpreted by the New Perspective. Here is the way N. T. Wright summarizes it:

[Sanders’] major point, to which all else is subservient, can be quite simply stated. Egyptianism in Paul’s day was not, as has regularly been supposed, a religion of legalistic works-righteousness.

Wright agrees with this main thesis of the New Perspective: “Sanders . . . dominates the landscape, and, until a major refutation of his central thesis is produced, honesty compels one to do business with him. I do not myself believe such a refutation can or will be offered; serious modifications are required, but I regard his basic point as established” (Ibid, p. 20).

For example, Wright says that the boasting which Moses opposed was not what we usually think it is.

This boasting which Moses opposed is not the boasting of the successful moralist; it is the racial boast of the pagan Egyptian royalty, which claimed that Pharaoh had the right of life and death over all people because of the powerful gods backing him. Moses has no thought of warding off a proto-Pelagianism, of which in any case his contemporaries were not guilty.

Wright’s statements are baffling in several ways. One way is that the Pharaoh is accused of boasting in his status as an Egyptian while doing things Egyptians out not do. How Wright can use this paragraph to distinguish moral boasting from racial boasting escapes me (as does the distinction itself).

Then, there is Wright’s affirmation of Sanders’ claim that the religion of Pharaoh was not the “religion of legalistic works-righteousness,” and that the “The Egyptian [of Moses’ day] obeys false gods out of gratitude, as the proper response to their favor.” The only explanation I can find for such amazing statements is that the testimony of Moses is denied or obscured. It is my impression that evangelicals enamored by the NPP have not reckoned seriously enough with the fact that the origination of the NPP seems to have taken place in the halls of such denial or obscuring.

When Moses addressed the Egyptian leaders of his day his resounding conclusion was they do not even know God. And, not knowing God, their lived-out religion (the kind Jesus is concerned with) is not “out of gratitude,” to their gods, nor is it a “proper response to grace.”

Okay, I’ll stop the hokiness. Hopefully, though, this demonstrates the problem: just because Pharaoh and the Egyptians who sided with him were strangers to the true God and died in their sins as unbelievers, doesn’t mean that their unbelief was a form of merit theology. The Bible talks about the true religion v. false religion many times in the Bible without making that the key issue.

Whether or not that is the key issue between Jesus and Paul and the Pharisees is logically a distinct question from whether or not the Pharisees were wonderful people. If Pharaoh believed he had the authority and right to enslave and kill the Hebrews because the sun god graciously chose him, forgave his sins, and justified him before the court of the gods, he is no less a monstrous killer and a hell-bound pagan. It doesn’t matter if Egyptian paganism is a religion of grace or not.

Likewise, if the Pharisees are living in sin and teaching others to do so, and are enslaving people with rules that God hated, then the question as to whether they believe God graciously gave them this moral crusade is not in danger of getting them off the hook. Granted, a liberal like Sanders might think so, but that has nothing to do with what Evangelicals think who find the “New Perspective” compelling. On the contrary, they side with Jesus against the Pharisees and want to be sure that there is no Pharisaism in the Evangelical Church.

I will reiterate a few things that I have reiterated often.

First, Jesus and Paul would preach salvation only by God’s grace even if the Pharisees weren’t teaching the opposite error. I think it is denigrating to salvation by grace to insist that, if the Pharisees weren’t semi-Pelagians, then Paul wouldn’t teach Augustinianism. He would and in fact he did (if you will forgive the anachronistic labeling).

Second, John Piper has written some extremely helpful and solid works. If you haven’t read (and this is off the top of my head, not exhaustive) Desiring God, The Pleasures of God, or Future Grace, then you are missing something important. In fact, The Pleasures of God toppled J. I. Packer’s Knowing God from my personal category of Best Calvinistic Devotional Book Ever (though, if you haven’t read Knowing God you are missing a real great books as well!). My disappointment of Piper’s recent communications is so powerful because of his well-deserved reputation.

Third, I am still willing to consider a more “traditional” interpretation of the Pharisees. The only argument I see anywhere in this latest essay is his interpretation of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. But I don’t see his understanding of the Pharisee’s theology as arising from the parable itself. If we already knew that the Pharisees held to a theory of meriting salvation on the ground of their own righteous (though graciously brought about through monergism) works (which, ironically, would vindicate the Pharisees as Augustinians), then the passage would be amenable to that interpretation. But it isn’t sufficient as proof by itself. In my view, simply reading Dr. Piper’s summary of what Jesus said about the Pharisees is weighty evidence against his understanding of their soteriology. Are we really to believe that merit legalism was so unimportant to Jesus that, when he pronounced his woes (Matt 23) on them that he forgot to mention this as a reason for their condemnation?

But if there is some future argument that can be brought forward, I’m willing to hear it. What I object to is being told that “It is my impression that evangelicals enamored by the NPP have not reckoned seriously enough with the fact that the origination of the NPP seems to have taken place in the halls of such denial or obscuring.” Piper knows what he is doing to the reputations of men by saying this kind of thing. His “impressions” would be better off left to his private discussions with his friend. In public he should try supporting his opinion about the Pharisees with some actual evidence.

Offsite: Looking for Legalism in all the wrong places

I previously posted a paper on this blog which discussed Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In it, I argued that Paul’s Judaizing opponents in Galatia were not merit legalists and that Galatians is not an argument against such legalism. Instead, Paul’s opponents were more like “hyper-dispensationalists.” They wanted the Christian gentiles to become Jews because the Judaizers believed that the old covenants had not been affected at all by the arrival of the Messiah. Paul therefore argued in his letter that circumcision (the Abrahamic covenant) and the law (the Mosaic covenant) had been fulfilled and transformed by the Messiah’s arrival. Thus, in this new covenant, the gentiles had been incorporated into God’s people apart from the old administrations.

In the next few posts, I want to continue with this theme as it relates to the N.T. history books. I want to look at the Gospels and Acts and see what sort of emphasis, if any, is put on identifying and critiquing merit legalism. The three posts in this series will be as follows:

1. The Sins of Israel

2. The Sins of the Pharisees

3. Some “Surprising” Teaching from Jesus

This post will summarize the sins of Israel in general as they are pointed out in the Gospels and Acts. I will be looking to see how prominent merit legalism is. Not every sin will be listed. In a number of places, Israel or a group of Jews is criticized without a lot of specificity (e.g., Matt. 11:20-24). But I will be looking for discussions of specific sins with an eye toward identifying any examples of legalism.

Read it all: beaten with brains: Looking for Legalism.

Sunday A.M. Post: N. T. Wright on Foundational Grace

When St. Paul says that ‘if righteousness came by the Law, the Messiah died in vain” (Galatians 2.21), he was stating a foundational principle. Whatever language or terminology we use to talk about eh great gift that the one true God has given to his people in and through Jesus Christ (“salvation,” “eternal life,” and so on), it remains precisely a gift. It is never something we can earn. We can never put God into our debt; we always remain in his. Everything I’m going to say about the moral life, about moral effort, about the conscious shaping of our patterns of behavior, takes place simply and solely within the framework of grace–the grace which was embodied in Jesus and his death and resurrection, the grace which is active in the Spirit-filled preaching of the gospel, the grace which continues to be active by the Spirit in the lives of believers. It is simply not the case that God does some of the work of our salvation and we have to do the rest. It is not the case that we begin by being justified by grace through faith and then have to go on to work all by ourselves to complete that job by struggling, unaided, to live a holy life….

What’s more, if we try to put God in our debt by trying to be make ourselves “good enough for him” (whatever that might mean), we are prone to make matters worse… We would all prefer to live with people who know perfectly well that they weren’t good enough for God, but were humbly grateful that God loved them anyway, than with people who were convinced that they had made it to God’s standard and could look down on the rest of us from a lofty moral mountaintop.

There is much more to the doctrine of “justification by faith” than this, but not less. The radical insight of St. Paul into what it means to be human, and what it means to have the overwhelming love of God take hold of you, corresponds in quite an obvious way to what most people know about what makes someone more or less livable-with. And livable-with-ness, though of course it contains a large subjective element, is not a bad rule of thumb for what it might mean to be truly human.

From After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, p. 60.