Category Archive: Theology – Soteriology
Benne Holwerda, commenting on the phrase in 1 Peter 1:3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy, rebegot us…”:
When we think of mercy, we think of “compassion.” Mercy we show to the sick and destitute and needy. And the biblical word undeniably does have that element. But it is also much more.
If a beggar comes to your door, then you can give that man something, but you can also leave him alone. In other words, he never knows beforehand whether he will receive anything. You do not have the obligation to sacrifice, and therefore such a person’s existence is absolutely uncertain: he never knows what he can count on.
And there lies the difference between the biblical word and its present-day meaning. In the Bible, too, mercy has to do with compassion to which God is not bound and which we ourselves have forfeited. But with regard to this mercy, we need never to be in doubt, because God has obligated Himself to it.
Actually one can best render the content of this word by “covenant faithfulness.” And — isn’t it true? — in a covenant one always knows where one stands: If the element of faithfulness remains firm, one can count on the mercy! Scholars have demonstrated this sense of “mercy” in Scripture. To give one quotation: “God’s mercy is based on the covenant, whereby He freely takes upon Himself obligations toward His people, so that the pious can call upon God’s mercy; in this connection one must keep in view that it is always the mercy that God has promised, on which one thus cannot make a claim but which one can still expect. The idea of mercy and of covenant belong together!”
Naturally I do not mean to deal with the term “covenant” here. But I do believe that there is so much doubt about God’s grace because many no longer (want to) know about the covenant. We would hope in the mercy of God if only we believed in His holy covenant! But many speak and think about the mercy of God as a lottery: you only have a chance! The only way we can expect improvement here is if we no longer isolate the one from the other, but allow everything — and thus also the mercy of God — to stand in the framework of the covenant in which Scripture places it. — Benne Holwerda, “’According to His Mercy Reborn’ (1 Peter 1:3b),” De wijsheid die behoudt (my translation and slight paraphrase).
The godly are characterized by gladness. The doctrines of godliness are the doctrines of gladness.Â If it does not come at the last to gladness, then to hell with it.Â When the work of God is good and deep, then those who are redeemed from their depravity are happy to sing and talk about it.Â “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Is. 35:10).
When they really understand that God foreordained their wonderful salvation before the foundations of the world, they break into another song.Â Too often Christians debate the fact of predestination in such a way that both sides forget what a wonderful doctrine it would be if it were true.Â “Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the Lord hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem” (Is. 52:19).Â The real stakes in the real debate are joy and laughter….
We are sadly mistaken and think that fussiness is holiness.Â We think the Lord’s Day is for fasting when it is a feast.Â We think that psalms were given to mortify the flesh when they were in fact given for the overflow of the spirit.Â We think that predestination is a vast and impersonal machine grinding our bones into flour, when it’s nothing other than our loving Father involved in everything we say and do.Â In our poverty-stricken doctrine, our salvation was God’s little afterthought, and besides, we were not so bad to begin with, and so we have been forgiven little, and have received little.Â Not surprisingly, we love little and laugh even less.
The way out is repentance â€”Â not a worldly sorrow that leads to death, but a godly sorrow that leads to repentance without regret.Â In another time of reformation, the people had to be reminded of the same thing.Â A return to holiness is always a return to joy and laughter.Â “Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10) â€”Â Doug Wilson, “The Font of Laughter,” Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision for Middle Earth, pp. 75-76, 77).
I just received information about the upcoming Christ Church Ministerial Conference, October 17-19, 2005. I’ve been attending these conferences for several years now, and the last two years â€” on the Trinity (2003) and typology (2004) â€” were particularly outstanding. This year looks as if it’ll be great, too.
GREAT DELIVERANCE: THE LIFE OF JUSTIFICATION
* Old Paths and Ancient Landmarks
* Regeneration and Justification
* Justification and Culture Wars
* The Justification of God: Justification in Recent Theology
* And Abraham Believed God: Justification and Righteousness in Genesis
* No Condemnation: Justification and Deliverance in Romans 8
* The Rich Young Rebel: An Alternative Account of Matthew 19:16-30
* Did Jesus Earn Our Salvation? Merit, Imputation, and the Resurrection of Christ
* Feeling God’s Pleasure: Living in a State of Justification
Moriah and I are planning to attend. Will we see any of you there?
Far from being a threat to justification by faith, I am becoming more and more convinced that a strong view of sacramental efficacy is necessary to maintain justification by faith. Can justification by faith survive the evacuation of the sacraments? The last few hundred years gives us little reason to think it likely.
Of course, it’s only a short blog entry and that whets my appetite for more from Leithart on the sacraments.
Here’s a recent interview with N. T. Wright on the resurrection.
Wright claims that many Christians today are weak on the doctrine of the resurrection, and my own experience would bear that out. I once preached on Christ’s ascension and had a man say to me, in some astonishment, “You mean Jesus still has a body in heaven? I thought he left it behind when he ascended.” I had similar experiences in catechism classes when we dealt with the resurrection.
Somehow the intermediate state (disembodied existence in heaven) has eclipsed the final state (a re-embodied existence in a new heavens and new earth) in many Christians’ minds. (Thanks, Gideon, for the link!)
This week, I’ve been working on Acts 2 in preparation for Pentecost (this coming Sunday). In particular, I’ll be focusing on the gift of tongues (2:4ff.), which I take to be ordinary human languages and not some kind of private prayer language or a sort of “non-cognitive vocalization” (to borrow Richard Gaffin‘s term). I’m aware that some commentators distinguish between the tongues on the day of Pentecost and the tongues that Paul is dealing with in 1 Corinthians, but that distinction doesn’t seem plausible to me.
As I thought about Pentecost, I was struck by the importance of understanding the gift of tongues in its historical context. If we posit that the gift of tongues is the ability to scat while praying or prophesying, like a jazz singer improvising, or if we take the gift of tongues to be the gift of a private prayer language, what is the point of the gift? Why was this particular gift given at Pentecost, after Christ ascended into heaven? Why would such a gift have to wait until after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ? How does this gift fit into redemptive history?
One answer might be that this gift is some sort of evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Because the Spirit has come, we can now pray and prophecy in some other language. But why? Why this particular gift? What’s the significance of it? Why couldn’t this gift be given earlier?
Those questions arise if we treat the gift of tongues in isolation from its historical context. The gift of tongues becomes a sort of showy demonstration of the Spirit’s power. The Spirit could just as well have shown His presence by giving people the gift of doing handstands or, for that matter, barking like dogs or laughing uncontrollably. The gift is arbitrary, with no roots in the rest of Scripture, and if it’s arbitrary then any number of weird things someone has dreamed up can be claimed as a similar “gift of the Spirit.”
But if we locate the gift of tongues in its historical context, as men such as Sinclair Ferguson, Palmer Robertson, and James Jordan have done, we end up with a richer understanding of the gift of tongues. In fact, only in this historical context does the gift make sense.
The gift of tongues wasn’t an arbitrary example of the Spirit’s power. Rather, it was given at Pentecost precisely because it had a role to play at that point in redemptive history.
And what was that role? It was a role rooted in the Old Covenant revelation. The background to the gift of tongues includes what happened at the Tower of Babel. As the Tower of Babel resulted in division, Pentecost results in unity as the gospel now goes out in many tongues to gather people into the church. The divisions of the Old Covenant and of the Old Creation are now being broken down by the Spirit of the resurrected Christ, including, in particular, the division between Jew and Gentile, represented by the language of Israel and the many tongues of the nations.
But, as with the Tower of Babel, speaking with other tongues also implies judgment. At Babel, God confused the “lip” of the people (Gen. 11:9) so that they were not able to understand each other’s speech (11:7). But at Pentecost, too, the disciples begin speaking in different languages. The effect is not that the listeners couldn’t understand â€” they did, in fact, understand â€” but I wonder if there isn’t something symbolic going on here. Is this gift of tongues implying that the temple and perhaps Jerusalem is (in danger of becoming) a new Tower of Babel, from which the unbelieving Jews will be scattered?
Even if that’s not the case, Paul links the gift of tongues to judgment coming on unbelieving Israel in 1 Corinthians 14:21, when he quotes from Isaiah 28:11, 12:
With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; and yet, for all that, they will not hear me.
That passage in Isaiah draws on God’s threat to bring against Israel “a nation whose language you will not understand” (Deut. 28:49). Israel wouldn’t listen to God when He spoke to them in their own language, and so He threatened to speak to them in the language of foreign invaders. That speech is a speech of judgment, but it is also a summons to repentance.
And so it is, Paul says, with the gift of tongues in the church: It is a sign to unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:22) and, given the context, a sign to unbelieving Jews in particular. It is a sign that the kingdom has been taken from Israel and has been given to another nation, a nation that will bear fruit to God, as Jesus had said (Matt. 21:43).
As a sign of the worldwide expansion of the kingdom of God as a result of Christ’s death and resurrection and ascension and as a sign of God’s judgment on unbelieving Israel, the gift of tongues fits with the situation begun by Pentecost. It wasn’t simply a private prayer language and it certainly isn’t non-cognitive vocalizing: it involved genuine human languages, the languages of the nations, because it was a sign of the gospel going to the nations and of judgment coming on Israel.
As such, this gift was also intended to be temporary. Though God may continue to bless some missionaries with unusual language gifts, the gift of tongues itself, as a sign to unbelieving Israel, was intended for the period when the Old Covenant and New Covenant overlapped, the period when God’s judgment had not yet fallen on unbelieving Israel and its temple, the period before AD 70. After that, the gift of tongues no longer had a role to play.
The gift of tongues given at Pentecost thus had everything to do with its particular moment in history. It was not an arbitrary personal experience certain Christians might have, an experience which appears out of the blue after Pentecost and which has very little meaning in itself. It was, rather, rooted in God’s past revelation, a fulfilment of God’s past warnings, a reversal of Babel’s confusion, and a demonstration of the new situation brought about through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. The gift of tongues has meaning only in its historical framework.
When God, through His grace, grants us forgiveness of sins without our merit, so that we need not purchase it or earn it ourselves, we are at once inclined to draw this reassuring conclusion and to say: Well, so we need no longer do good! â€” Therefore, in addition to teaching the doctrine of faith in His grace, God must constantly combat this notion and show that this is not at all His meaning. Sins are assuredly not forgiven in order that they should be committed, but in order that they should stop; otherwise it should more justly be called the permission of sins, not the remission of sins (Luther, Sermons on Romans, Chapter 8, cited in Thomas Oden, Classical Pastoral Care, vol. 2: Ministry Through Word and Sacrament, pp. 149-150).
Look at what Paul actually says when he talks about how people become Christians. Look for instance at 1 Thessalonians where he says quite a lot about it without ever using the word justify or any of its cognates. He talks about the gospel coming to you in the power of the Spirit. You accepted that word not as the word of man but as what it really is, the word of God that is at work in you believers. It’s quite clear what Paul is talking about, that he comes into town announcing that Jesus is Lord, as a royal herald. He is saying that the crucified Jesus is the Lord of the world. And this is not, “Here is a way of salvation. You might like to apply it to yourself.” It’s not, “Here is a new way of being religious and you might enjoy it.” This is really an imperial summons: “On your knees!” Nobody ever went into a Roman town and said, “Caesar is lord and you might like to have this experience of acknowledging him as lord if that suits you.” They said, “Caesar is Lord, get on your knees and we want the tax right now.”And when that message is announced, some men and women find to their astonishment that they believe it. I say to their astonishment because it’s stupid. Paul says that it’s stupid. He knows it. You can just imagine it. It’s like someone telling a joke in a foreign language and not knowing why people laugh. Paul was going around the Roman world saying that this crucified Jesus is the lord of the world. He must have felt many times this is the craziest thing imaginable yet when I say it, lives are changed, the community emerges, people love each other. That is grace. And it is all of grace. But then the minute they say, “I really believe that Jesus is Lord, I really believe that God has raised him from the dead” and so on, then the doctrine of justification comes in and says you are all one in Christ Jesus. And, the proof is right there in Galatians 2:11-21. The first major discussion of justification is really all about who you are allowed to eat with. It’s not about how to go to heaven when you die.
(Note: Wright does not deny that believers to go to heaven when we die, though he stresses that our final goal isn’t heaven but the resurrection body. As well, his point here is that the first major discussion of justification has to do with table fellowship here on earth and not, there in Galatians 2, with how to go to heaven.)
Sounding the Alarm: N. T. Wright and Evangelical Theology
N. T. Wright and Reformed Theology: Friends or Foes?
A Study of Justification by Faith
Justification by Faith Alone
Lutheranized Calvinism: Gospel or Law, or Gospel and Law
P. Andrew Sandlin
I’ll certainly be reading this issue with great interest. It also contains the second part of Travis Tamerius’s interview with N. T. Wright. I’ve only skimmed the interview, but here’s one of my favourite quotations. Wright is talking about how Paul’s statement that the Thessalonians had received his message, not as the word of man, but as the word of God:
It’s quite clear what Paul is talking about [in 1 Thessalonians], that he comes into town announcing that Jesus is Lord, as a royal herald. He is saying that the crucified Jesus is the Lord of the world. And this is not, “Here is a way of salvation. You might like to apply it to yourself.” It’s not, “Here is a new way of being religious and you might enjoy it.” This is really an imperial summons: “On your knees!” Nobody ever went into a Roman town and said, “Caesar is lord and you might like to have this experience of acknowledging him as lord if that suits you.” They said, “Caesar is Lord, get on your knees and we want the tax right now.”
In a grave they laid you, O my Life and my Christ;
and the armies of the angels were sore amazed
as they sang the praise of your submissive love.
Right it is indeed, life-bestowing Lord, to magnify You;
for upon the Cross were Your most-pure hands outspread,
and the strength of our dread foe have You destroyed.
John Tavener, Lamentations and Praises.
This evening, after teaching a couple of catechism classes, I read C. Trimp’s “The Promise of the Covenant,” in Unity in Diversity: Studies Presented to Prof. Dr. Jelle Faber On the Occasion of His Retirement. Trimp starts his short essay this way:
There is something unusual about the word “promise.” In our daily conversations “promise” usually means the pledge to do something in the future. But for the reformers of the 16th century the word had a different meaning. For them, the expression “God promises” did not primarily point to a future act. Rather, they understood it to mean God speaking in the present: God proclaims the good tiding, the gospel of the acquittal in Jesus Christ. God’s proclaiming is a speaking with a promise…. At the moment of this address the salvation of Christ comes to us, yes, God Himself comes to us with salvation. Hence our custom of speaking about “salvation in the form of promise”…. By this we do not mean that we obtain salvation in the future only. What we do mean is that the salvation of God reaches our heart and life by means of God speaking to us.
Trimp then spends some time on Luther’s view of the promise before moving to the Heidelberg Catechism. In Q&A 22 of the Catechism, we say that a Christian must believe “all that God promises us in the gospel,” which is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Trimp writes:
It is evident that these articles speak about the deeds God performed in the past and performs in the present. Nevertheless, the articles summarize the “promises of the gospel.” For each of the twelve articles discusses the love of God towards His people. In this case “promise” comprises the meaning of the history of redemption in light of the salutary significance for the congregation and its members. The fact that Jesus Christ was born of the virgin Mary may rightly be called the fulfilment of many promises (cf. also answer 19). Yet this fact is in turn a “promise” for the congregation, and question 36 deals with this promise.
So too the Catechism’s discussion of baptism speaks about God’s promises in connection with what God has done, is doing, and will do.
Trimp makes an important point: when we speak about the covenant promise, we aren’t speaking strictly of something God will do in the future. God pledges that past events too are for us. He gives us all Christ’s riches in the form of promises which He wants preached to His people: not “this will be yours someday if…” but “this is what God has done in Christ for you.” It’s too bad that his discussion is so brief!