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“According to” works / “Basis of” works

April 22, 2010 Leave a comment

I have posted elsewhere regarding John Piper’s “future” justification. If you read Piper’s writings on the topic, he leans very heavily on the idea that the phrase “according to” means something completely different than the phrase “on the basis of” when it comes to our works and justification. He has to lean heavily, because without such a distinction he is guilty of muddying the gospel.

Here is how he argues in his book The Future of Justification:

Now we are in a better position to comment on Romans 2:13 where Paul says, “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Again, as we saw with verses 6–11, Paul does not say how being a “doer of the law” functions in relation to being justified at the last day. At least the same four possibilities that I mentioned above exist, plus one more: Doing the law could be (1) the basis of justification in a meritorious way; or (2) it could be the basis as Spirit-wrought fruits of faith; or (3) it could be, not the basis, but the evidence and confirmation of faith in another basis, namely, Christ who cancels the debt of all sin; or, extending that last possibility beyond forgiveness, (4) it could also be the evidence and confirmation of faith in Christ as the one in whom not only forgiveness but also divine righteousness is counted as ours. Or (5) Paul could be stating a principle that he affirms but that he believes never comes to pass for sinful people. Thus, John Stott says, “This is a theoretical or hypothetical statement, of course, since no human being has ever fully obeyed the law (cf. 3:20).”

What is not said in verse 13 is that people are justified “by works.” Paul does not use the phrase ej x e[ rgwn (“from works”), which I take to be roughly what is usually meant by the English phrase “on the basis of works,” as opposed to the phrase “according to works” (kata; ta; e[ rga auj tou` ).*** Paul is clear that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Rather, he says, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). Does this mean that the statement “It is . . . the doers of the law who will be justified” (v. 13) only expresses a principle of doing over against hearing so as to remove the objection that the Gentiles don’t have access to “hearing”?

Given the demands of the flow of the argument in Romans 2:6–16 which we saw above, I doubt that we can press this statement very far for the defense of justification by works. Paul makes a statement that in this context functions as a principle (doing, not hearing, will matter at the judgment), rather than a declaration about how that doing relates to justification—let alone whether the doing of Christ may supply what our doing lacks. The verse was not written to carry that much freight. However, the verse does raise the question that must be answered: How does the obedience of the Christian relate to his justification?

***[footnote] Wherever the phrase ej x e[ rgwn is connected to justification in Paul, the point is that justification does not happen this way. Rom. 3:20; 9:11, 32; 11:6; Gal. 2:16; 3:2, 5, 19; Eph. 2:9; Titus 3:5. In Matthew 12:37 and James 2:21, 24–25, justification is said to happen “by your words” (ej k . . . tw` n lov gwn sou) or “by works” (ej x e[ rgwn). Other contextual factors incline me to take Jesus and James to mean not that justification is “based on” our deeds the way our justification is “based on” Christ as our righteousness, but rather that our deeds confirm our faith in Jesus so that he remains the sole basis of our acceptance with God, in the sense that his death alone covers our sins and his righteousness alone provides all the obedience that God requires of us for God to be totally for us—the perfect righteousness implicitly required in the phrase, “God counts righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:6). It is likely that Matthew and James are using the word dikaiov w differently than Paul is (just as Matthew and Paul use kalev w differently, Matt. 22:14; Rom. 8:30). So, James and Matthew may also be appropriating the phrase “from works” differently than Paul. While Paul chooses to never employ that phrase in reference either to present justification or future judgment, James and Matthew, without differing from Paul conceptually, employ a phrase that Paul wouldn’t to say something (conceptually) that Paul would. I am not saying that there are distinct and uniform usages of the two phrases ej x e[ rgwn and kata; ta; e[ rga. The latter can carry the sense of “on the basis of” at times, though not always. Therefore, we must draw our conclusions concerning Paul’s understanding of the function of works in relation to justification not merely from the phrases themselves, but from the wider teaching of the apostle as well.

How I See Works Relating to Justification

Let me declare myself clearly here: I believe in the necessity of a trans- formed life of obedience to Jesus by the power of the Spirit through faith as a public evidence and confirmation of faith at the Last Day for all who will finally be saved. In other words, I believe it is actually true, not just hypothetically true, that God “will render to each one accord- ing to his works [ta; e[ rga auj tou` ]: to those who by patience in well- doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom. 2:6–7). I take the phrase “according to” (kata; ) in a sense different from “based on.” I think the best way to bring together the various threads of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith apart from works (Rom. 3:28; 4:4–6; 11:6; Eph. 2:8) is to treat the necessity of obedience not as any part of the basis of our justification, but strictly as the evidence and confirmation of our faith in Christ whose blood and righteousness is the sole basis of our justification. How this is the case, while justification is by faith alone apart from any basis in that very obedience, has been one of the main themes of my preaching and writing for the last thirty years.***

***[footnote] See most fully my extended treatment of this issue in The Purifying Power of Living by Faith in Future Grace (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1995). See also “The Pleasure of God in Personal Obedience and Public Justice,” in John Piper, The Pleasures of God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000, orig. 1991), 233–257; “Fighting for Joy Like a Justified Sinner,” in When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 71–94; What Jesus Demands from the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), especially 174–180, 242–248; “Letter to a Friend Concerning the So-Called Lordship Salvation,” http://www.desiringGod.org/ResourceLibrary/ Articles/ByDate/1990/1496_Letter_to_a_Friend_Concerning_the_SoCalled_Lordship_Salvation/

So you can see what a lynchpin Piper’s interpretation of “according to” is. You can access the PDF from the link above to read more on pp 116-120.

However, Piper’s interpretation of the phrase “according to” does not stand the test, and as a result, his view of the final judgment has serious problems.

Richard Gaffin tries to argue, on the basis of the grammar involved in a similar Pauline statement, that works are not the ground of judgment: “It is not for nothing, I take it, and not to be dismissed as an overly fine exegesis to observe, that in Romans 2:6 Paul writes, ‘according (kata) to works,’ not ‘on account of (dia),’ expressing the ground, nor ‘by (ek) works,’ expressing the instrument” (By Faith, Not By Sithgt [Carlisle: Paternoster, 2006], 98-99; similarly, Venema, Gospel, 266). Though Gaffin’s comment concerns Paul’s statement in Romans 2:6, at the same time we find the same prepositional combination with the accusative in John’s statement in Revelation 20:12e, the only difference being in the use of the singular and plural pronouns (cf. Rom 2:6). Gaffin argues this point because he wants to preserve sola fide in the judgment of the works of the believer. Relying upon the analysis of Ridderbos and Murray, Gaffin’s finer point is that the judgment kata works is “in accordance with” the works, and such works are synecdochical for faith in Christ (see Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard de Witt [1975; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992], 178-81; Murray, Romans, 78-79).

Yet can such a fine distinction be supported by the grammar alone? The use of “dia” with the accusative means “because of, on account of,” and the use of “kata” with the accusative means “in accordance with, corresponding to” (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 368-69, 376-77). One must ask, what difference exists between the two? In fact, when we delve more deeply into the significance of “kata” with the accusative, we find that “often the noun that follows kata specifies the criterion, standard, or norm in the light of which a statement is made or is true, an action is performed, or a judgment is passed. The prep. will mean ‘according to’, ‘in conformity with’, ‘corresponding to.’ This use is common in reference to the precise and impartial standard of judgment that will be applied at the great Assize (Matt. 16:27; Rom 2:6; 1 Cor 3:8; 2 Tim. 4:14; 1 Peter 1:17; Rev 2:23)” (Murray J. Harris, “Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament,” in NIDNTT, 3:1200). Pace Gaffin and Venema, their argument apparently fails to account for judgment kata works for the wicked. This point seems to be borne out by Paul’s own use of kata, as he says, “He will render each one according to [kata] his works” (Rom. 2:6), but this rendering kata works is for both the righteous (v. 7) and the wicked (v. 8). According to Gaffin’s interpretation, are the wicked judged according to their works, but are they not the ground of their condemnation (see 2 Cor. 11:15)? Again, note how Paul uses kata: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due [to de ergazomeno ho misthos ou logizetai kata charin alla kata opheilema]” (Rom 4:4; see also Brian Vickers, Jesus Blood and Righteousness [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006] 95; Yinger, Paul, 21-26, 89-90, 135-136, 175, 182, 186). Judgment therefore is indeed kata (in accordance with, or on the basis of) works – the evil works of the unbeliever and the good works, or righteousness, of Christ.

“Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine” p. 315

Piper’s Two (Three) Wills of God and 1 Timothy 2:4

December 28, 2009 28 comments

I certainly don’t mean to focus more than necessary on Piper, but he tends to be involved at significant levels in a number of different issues. I was recently talking with people on facebook about double predestination. Someone linked to Piper’s Are There Two Wills in God?, a very, very commonly linked article. I said that Piper was wrong, and when asked why, gave the following explanation (along with this link to an AOMin response to Piper’s article http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php/2008/12/10/1-timothy-24-an-exegesis/):

Marc, thanks for the opportunity to clarify. Please see the link I provided as it interacts with Piper’s article.

It implies that God decrees one state of affairs while also willing and teaching that a different state of affairs should come to pass. This distinction in the way God wills has been expressed in various ways throughout the centuries. It is not a new contrivance. For example, theologians have spoken of sovereign will and moral will, efficient will and permissive will, secret will and revealed will, will of decree and will of command, decretive will and preceptive will, voluntas signi (will of sign) and voluntas beneplaciti (will of good pleasure), etc.

This is true. But Piper does not understand these two wills in the same way that typical Reformed theologians do. Thus he is creating confusion and is unjustified in the way he attempts to find support for his view in Reformed history. (If someone can point me towards Jonathan Edwards’ interpretation of 1 Tim 2:4 I would appreciate it)

The distinction simply stems from the fact that the word “will” can refer to more than one thing. In the Bible, it refers to God’s decree and it also refers to God’s commands (or law, as Piper quotes Edwards). But note that those are two very different things. It is not a contradiction or even a paradox to say that God commands men to do something, and then decrees that they do not do it.

“we must certainly distinguish between what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen, and [that] both of these things can be spoken of as God’s will.”

It is important how one understands that phrase. By “what God would like to see happen” do you simply mean what God commands? Or do you mean God longs for and desires for something that He does not actually accomplish? If the latter, then you have a problem with Is. 46:10; Ps 115:3. If God does not decree something, it is because He does not desire it.

What Piper is actually arguing for is 3 wills in God: a decretive will, a preceptive (command) will, and a will of unfulfilled desire or simply, a wish. Piper creates confusion by claiming his third view is just God’s preceptive will. It is not.

Piper’s error can be seen in his attempt to apply an understanding of God’s preceptive (command/precepts) will to John 3:16 and 1 Timothy 2:4.

1 Timothy 2:4, for example, is not talking about God’s command to repent and believe. It is referring to God’s redemptive *work* of salvation. It is referring to something God does, not to something man must do. Therefore it refers to God’s decretive will. That being the case, it simply does not make sense to say it refers to some kind of lower desire in God that is superseded by a greater desire (“God’s will to save all people is restrained by his commitment to the glorification of his sovereign grace”). If God’s will to save all is restrained by His commitment not to save all, then we shouldn’t pray and ask Him to save all. (Let me give you an example. If I have a desire to go on vacation with my wife, but I have a greater desire to pay rent, why would I tell my wife to continually ask me to go on vacation?) It just doesn’t make any sense of 1 Timothy 2:4. Either the Arminian interpretation is correct (or the Universalist’s), or John Calvin’s interpretation is correct. Piper’s is not exegetically viable.

Let me know what you think. Aside from all the other issues, of particular interest to me is that Piper’s interpretation just doesn’t seem to make any sense of 1 Timothy 2:4.

Update:

R.C. Sproul is a good enough communicator to recognize that what John Piper is arguing for is really 3 wills in God, not 2. In his Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, he says

“When we speak about God’s will we do so in at least three different ways… The three meanings of the will of God: (a) Sovereign decretive will is the will by which God brings to pass whatsoever He decrees. This is hidden to us until it happens. (b) Preceptive will is God’s revealed law or commandments, which we have the power but not the right to break. (c) Will of disposition describes God’s attitude or disposition. It reveals what is pleasing to Him [Sproul places Ezekiel 18:23,32; 33:11 in this category].”

Whether one agrees with Sproul’s reading of the Ezekial passages or not, he is much more helpful in that he does not muddy the waters of God’s preceptive will, as Piper and others do.

Also, I came across a critique of Piper’s essay written by an Arminian. It is worth taking note of:

The fact that God wants all men to be saved, set in juxtaposition with the fact that not all men end up saved, suggests that there is not only one will in the universe, but at least two. Arminians say that there is the will of God and the will of man – two wills at odds in the universe. Calvinists say the two wills that are at odds are both in God. That is, in one sense, God wishes all men would be saved; in another sense, He really wants millions of people to burn in hell for all eternity. Piper opens his essay with this ambitious statement of purpose:

“My aim in this chapter is to show from Scripture that the simultaneous existence of God’s will for ‘all persons to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:4) and his will to elect unconditionally those who will actually be saved is not a sign of divine schizophrenia or exegetical confusion.”

I have been surprised to see how many readers seem to think that he accomplished this goal. He does make about as good a case as can be made for such a doomed postulate, but he does so by tricking the mind of the inattentive reader (I don’t suggest that John Piper intends to “trick” anybody. I am sure that he is very convinced of the validity of the case he makes, but Calvinists have in many ways allowed themselves to be “tricked” by a faulty logic which they would never accept if used by their theological opponents. It manifests the phenomenon of how intense desire to believe a thing to be true will lead a man to accept uncritically the flimsiest case in its defense).

Contradiction

Piper attempts to explain “multidimensional” competing desires within the divine will by calling upon the distinction between God’s preceptive will and His decretive will. The problem is that he mis-applies this historic distinction. The distinction has been used historically to demonstrate that there is no contradiction between what God commands and what God wills:
“There is but one will of God; however, there is a distinction in the objects to which His will relates. Therefore in recognizing this distinction we differentiate between the will of His decree and the willof His command… The will of God‟s command is also referred to as His preceptive will or His revealed will. This will has reference to the regulative principle of life as well as to the laws which God has made known and prescribed to man in order that his walk might be regulated accordingly… it is primarily descriptive of man‟s duty… In making a distinction in the will of God, we are not suggesting that God has two wills. In God the act of the will is singular. The difference rather relates to the objects towards whom His will is exercised. Much less do we suggest that God has two wills which are incompatible, as if God with His revealed will would desire something and His secret will would be opposed. When we consider the will of God as being either secret or revealed, this distinction pertains to decidedly different matters [commands vs volition].”
-Wilhelmus à Brakel A Christians Reasonable Service, vol. 1, 114-115
So the distinction accomplishes its task of avoiding contradiction in God by distinguishing between (1) commands concerning man and (2) God’s will.

“The first and principal distinction is that of the decretive and preceptive will. The former means that which God wills to do or permit himself; the latter what he wills that we should do… Therefore Godcan (without a contradiction) will as to precept what he does not will as to decree inasmuch as he wills to prescribe something to man, but does not will to effect it (as he willed Pharaoh to release the people, but yet nilled their actual release).” -Francis Turretin,  Institutes, 3rd Topic, 15th Question

“The will of precept has no volitional content, for it simply states what God has commanded *ought* to be done by man… So it is quite  inappropriate to say that God wills something to  be with reference to His will of command, for the preceptive will  never pertains to the futurition of actions, only to the obligation of them.” -Matthew Winzer, review of Murray’s “The Free Offer of the Gospel”

If these two uses of the word “will” are conflated, then contradiction results. The problem is that Piper has conflated these two wills. He has taken what he thinks “God wills to do” and put it in the category of “what He wills that we should do.” Thus he has destroyed the original distinction that alleviated contradiction. You cannot place God’s “yearning” for the salvation of the reprobate in the category of command. John Murray recognized as much when he admitted “in the free offer there is expressed not simply the bare preceptive will of God but the disposition of lovingkindness on the part of God.” Some have claimed that John 3:16 can safely be placed in the category of God’s preceptive will. Yet this is clearly a departure from what is meant by preceptive will. For John 3:16 is a statement of “that which God wills to do” by acting in history.
When Berkhof wrote in defense of the well-meant offer he said: “It need not be denied that there is a real difficulty at this point, but this is the difficulty with which we are always confronted, when we seek to harmonize the decretive and preceptive will of God, a difficulty which even the objectors cannot solve and often simply ignore.” Raymond Blacketer wrote an excellent essay in the April 2000 issue of the Calvin Theological Journal in which he revisits the debate between the CRC and the PRCA. I commend the essay to all for while Blacketer does not agree with the PRCA in all their points, he is balanced enough to recognize the faults of the CRC when it comes to the well-meant offer. In response to Berkhof’s quote, he notes: “The point of the precept-decree distinction, however, is to clarify how God can command one thing and will the actual occurrence of the opposite! The “difficulty” only arises when one confuses the two, as is the case with the doctrine of the well-meant offer. The objectors have no difficulty to solve; nor are they ignorant of this basic distinction that is operative in the Canons and in major theologians of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods.” http://www.prca.org/articles/ctjblack.html

John Piper’s Justification According to Works

November 6, 2009 35 comments

I have been thrust into a study of the final judgment. It started when I read a post over at Bring the Books: If You Are Late to the Discussion. It is a summary, taken from Christianity Today, of John Piper and N.T. Wright’s views of justification. My study began when I commented that, given Piper’s view, he was the exact wrong person to be defending justification against Wright – and my comment was met with strong criticism. Here is Piper’s view:

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

I do not believe Piper’s view is biblical. There is no “future” justification in addition to “present” justification. They are the same. In the words of Robert Reymond: “Justification possesses an eschatological dimension, for it amounts to the divine verdict of the Eschaton being brought forward into the present time and rendered here and now concerning the believing sinner.” (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, p743).

Piper cannot consistently believe the above statement and also believe that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1) because he believes our salvation must await validation, determined by our works, on the last day.

Another consequence of Piper’s view is that he must deny justification by faith alone. I understand that he does not believe he denies it and in fact has written a whole book on it, and I thank God for that, but that just means he is inconsistent. Given that “present” justification is different from “future” justification, we can say that “present” justification does not matter because it does not determine who is going to heaven to spend eternity in paradise with God and who is going to hell to burn forever. “Future” justification is what determines our fate, and thus, “future” justification is what matters.

That being said, Piper does not believe that faith alone determines our “future” justification (keep in mind there is actually no difference between “future” and “present” justification). He believes that both our faith and our works determine our “future” justification. Granted, he does not view them equally – he believes in a sort of chain where our works connect us to saving faith which then connects us to Christ’s righteousness. But that means that it is not faith alone that unites us with Christ. Both our faith and our works play a determining role. Thus both our faith and our works are the instrumental causes of our justification.

You may say that’s unfair, that my logic must be wrong, that there’s no way Piper believes that. Well, let me offer some biblical support for Piper’s view. James says: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone(2:24). Clear enough, and if there’s any chance I have any Roman Catholics reading this, I’m sure you’re shouting “I told you so” from the rooftop.

But Brandon, you may object, James is not talking about the same thing as Paul. James is talking about our justification before men, about evidence that we look at to estimate if someone is justified. We can’t look into someone else’s heart to see if their faith is genuine. To us, faith is invisible, so we must look at the fruit of faith. I agree! But Piper does not. Piper does not believe James is talking about how we view each other here and now. No, Piper believes James is talking about the final judgment:

Several times Paul listed certain kinds of deeds and said, “those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). In other words, when these deeds are exposed at the judgment as a person’s way of life, they will be the evidence that their faith is dead and he will not be saved. As James said, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). That is what will be shown at the judgment. (Future Grace, p366, emphasis added)

He also says:

How then can I say that the judgment of believers will not only be the public declaration of our differing rewards in the kingdom of God, according to our deeds, but will also be the public declaration of our salvation – our entering the kingdom – according to our deeds? The answer is that our deeds will be the public evidence brought forth in Christ’s courtroom to demonstrate that our faith is real. And our deeds will be the public evidence brought fourth to demonstrate the varying measures of our obedience of faith. In other words, salvation is by grace through faith, and rewards are by grace through faith, but the evidence of invisible faith in the judgment hall of Christ will be a transformed life. (Future Grace, p364)

So Piper necessarily denies justification by faith alone, as James makes very, very plain. Yet Paul disagrees: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

If you disagree with the conclusion, I would honestly love to hear why, because I cannot come to any other conclusion. (If you do comment, please do not simply list quotes of Piper affirming “present” justification through faith alone – please actually demonstrate how the points above do not lead to the necessary conclusion).

Update:

R.S. Clark recently taught on the invalidity of a “two-stage justification.” Expostion of the Nine Points (pt 9)-A Two Stage Justification?

I asked him how his teaching relates to Piper:

As to Piper, he’s just flat wrong and he needs to repudiate this teaching. It’s contrary to the Reformation, to the Reformed confessions, and to the gospel.

Related Post:

For Further Reading:

Why Care About the Doctrine of Christ’s Imputation?

November 28, 2007 Leave a comment

I started reading John Piper’s “Counted Righteous in Christ”
http://www.desiringgod.org/Store/Books/ByTopic/All/337_Counted_Righteous_in_Christ/countedrighteous_ch1-2.pdf

He takes the first chapter to simply explain why he is even bothering dealing with a detailed doctrinal issue when he has so many of duties, as a pastor, to deal with. I found it interesting and worth sharing (only sections listed below, not full excerpt):

GROWING A CHURCH WITHOUT A HEART FOR DOCTRINE

To begin with, the older I get, the less impressed I am with flashy successes and enthusiasms that are not truth-based. Everybody knows that with the right personality, the right music, the right location, and the right schedule you can grow a church without anybody really knowing what doctrinal commitments sustain it, if any. Church-planting specialists generally downplay biblical doctrine in the core values of what makes a church “successful.” the long-term effect of this ethos is a weakening of the church that is concealed as long as the crowds are large, the band is loud, the tragedies are few, and persecution is still at the level of preferences.

But more and more this doctrinally-diluted brew of music, drama, life-trips, and marketing seems out of touch with real life in this world-not to mention the next. It tastes like watered-down greul, not a nourishing meal. It simply isn’t serious enough. It’s too playful and chatty and casual. Its joy just doesn’t feel deep enough or heartbroken or well-rooted. The injustice and persecution and suffering and hellish realities in the world today are so many and so large and so close that I can’t help but think that, deep inside, people are longing for something weighty and massive and rooted and stable and eternal. So it seems to me that the trifling with silly little sketches and breezy welcome-to-the-den styles on Sunday morning are just out of touch with what matters in life.

Of course, it works. Sort of. Because, in the name of felt needs, it resonates with people’s impulse to run from what is most serious and weighty and what makes them most human and noble. Silliness is a stepping-stone to substance. But it’s an odd path. And evidence is not ample that many are willing to move beyond fun and simplicity. So the price of minimizing truth-based joy and maximizing atmosphere-based comfort is high. More and more, it seems to me, the end might be in view. I doubt that a religious ethos with such a feel of entertainment can really survive as Christian for too many more decases. Crises reveal the cracks

[…]

WITHOUT PASTORAL STUDY, WE LIVE ON BORROWED FAITH

If Wilberforce is right – I think he is profoundly right – it will be less of a mystery why a pastor with a burden for racial justice and the sanctity of life and the moral transformation of our cultural landscape (Piper) would be gripped by the doctrine of justification by faith. There are deeper and more connections than most of us realize between the grasp of doctrine and the goo dof people and churches and societies. The book of Romans is not prominent in the Bible for nothing. Its massive arguments are to be labored over until understood. And not just by scholars. What a tragedy that this labor is regarded as wasted effort by so many who are giving trusted counsel in the church today.

Thousands are living on borrowed faith. We are living off the dividends, as it were, of intellectual and doctrinal investments made by pastors and church leaders from centuries ago. But the “central bank” of the Bible was not meant to fund future generations merely on the investments of the past. They are precious, and I draw on them daily. Everyone does, even those who don’t know it. But without our own investments of energy in the task of understanding, the Bank will close – as it has in many churhces. I had lunch with a pastor not long ago – of one of the most liberal churches in Minnesota (as he describes it) – who remarked that his people would be happy if he took his text from Emily Dickinson.

[…]

My daugther, Talitha, is six years old. Recently she and my wife and I were reading through Romans together. This was her choice after we finished Acts. She is learning to read, and I was putting my finger on each word. She stopped me in mid-sentence at the beginning of chapter 5 and asked, “What does ‘justified’ mean?” What do you say to a six-year-old? Do you say, “There are more important things to think about, so just trust Jesus and be a good girl”? Or do you say that it is very complex and even adults are not able to understand it fully, so you can wait and deal with it when you are older? Or do we say that it simply means that Jesus died in our place so that all our sins mgiht be forvien?

Or do we tell a story (which is what I did), made up on the spot, about two accused criminals, one guilty and one not guilty (one did a bad thing, and one did not do it)? The one who did not do the bad things is shown, by all those who saw the crime, to be innocent. So the judge “justifies” him; that is, he tells him he is a law-abiding person and did not do the crime and can go free. But the other accused criminal, who really did the bad thing, is shown to be guilty, because all the people who saw the crime saw him do it. But then, guess what! The judge “justifies” him too and says, “I regard you as a law-abiding citizen with full rights in our country” (not just a forgiven criminal who may not be trusted or fully free in the country). At this point Talitha looks at me puzzled.

She does not know how to put her finger on the problem but senses that something is wrong here. So I say, “That’s a problem, isn’t it? How can person who really did break the law and did the bad thing be told by the judge that he is a law-keeper, a righteous person, with full rights to the freedoms of the country, and doesn’t have to go to jail or be punished?” She shakes her head. Then I go back to Romans 4:5 and show her that God “justifies the ungodly.” Her brow is furrowed. I show her that she has sinned and I have sinned and we are like this second criminal. And when God “justifies” us he knows we are sinners and “ungodly” and “lawbreakers.” And I ask her, “What did God do so that it’s right for him to say to us sinners: you are not guilty, you are law-keepers in my eyes, you are righteous, and you are free to enjoy all tha this country has to offer?”

She knows it has something to do with Jesus and his coming and dying in our place. That much she has learned. But what more do I tell her now? The answer to this question will depend on whether Mom and Dad have been faithfully taught about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Will they tell her that Jesus was the perfect law-keeper and never sinned, but did everything the judge and his country expected of him? And will they tell her that when he lived and died, he not only took her place as a punishment-bearer but also stood in her place as a law-keeper? Will they say that he was punished for her and he obeyed the law for her? And if she will trust Jesus, God the Judge will let Jesus’ punishment and Jesus’ righteousness count for hers. So when God “justifies” her – says that she is forgiven and righteous (even though she was not punished and did not keep the law) – he does it because of Jesus. Jesus is her righteousness, and Jesus is her punishment. Trusting Jesus makes Jesus so much her Lord and Savior that he is her perfect goodness and her perfect punishment.

There are thousands of Christian families in the world who never have conversations like this. Not at six or sixteen. I don’t think we have to look far then for the weakness of the church and the fun-oriented superficiality of many youth ministries and the stunning fall-out rate after high school. But how shall parents teach their children if the message they get week in and week out from the pulpit is that DOCTRINE IS UNIMPORTANT? So, yes, I have a family to care for. And therefore I must understand the central doctrines of my faith – understand them so well that tehy can be translated for all the different ages of my children. As G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “It ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people.”

[…]

I mention not only world missions but also local church planting. If I want to see churches planted out from our church and others, why invest so much time and energy in defending and explaining the historic Protestant vision of justification as the imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? I have answered this already, but will say again, I think we have enough churches being planted by means of music, drama, creative scheduling, sprightly narrative, and marketing savvy. And there are too few that are God-centered, truth-treasuring, Bible-saturated, Christ-exalting, cross-focused, Spirit-dependent, prayer-soaked, soul-winning, justice-pursuing congregations with a wartime mindset ready to lay down their lives for the salvation of the nations and the neighborhoods. There is a blood-earnest joy that sustains a church like this, and it comes only by embracing Chirst-crucified as our righteousness.

[…]

I want people and churches and ministries and schools to break free from the modern preoccupation with being made much of as the key to happiness and motivation and mental health and missions and almost everything else. In its place I long to see our joy – and the joy of the nations – rooted in God’s wonderful work of freeing us to make much of Christ forever. There is an almost universal bondage in America to the mindset that we can only feel loved when we are made much of. The truth is, we are loved most deeply when we are helped to be free from that bondage and to find our joy in treasuring Christ and making much of him.

Categories: books, theology Tags: , ,

God’s Sovereignty and World Disasters

November 28, 2007 Leave a comment

Barbara Bradley Hagerty from NPR did a piece on religious reactions to the tsunamis called “Reconciling Religious Faith and Natural Disaster”
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4276173

Of particular interest is the Reformed Jew who believes God could not intervene. “It’s not a notion I can deal with and if I need to stand here and say ‘God does not control everything’ in order to clear God of such a crime, I will do so.”

God can speak, and has spoken for Himself. He doesn’t need someone to clear His name for Him, rather we need to submit our thoughts to Him.

God graciously directed Hagerty to John Piper, who was able to provide the only sufficient answers to the difficult question of how God could allow such disasters to happen.

You get a sound byte from him in the story above, but you can listen to the full interview that Hagerty did with Piper (30min) here:
http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Interviews/1678_The_NPR_Tsunami_Interview/

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Young, Restless, Reformed

November 28, 2007 Leave a comment

I stumbled upon a great article from Christianity Today:
http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/september/42.32.html

Some quotes:

Harris grew up as a youth leader in a seeker-sensitive church and later joined a charismatic congregation. Neither place emphasized doctrine. “Even just thinking doctrinally would have been foreign to me,” he explained. He knew enough to realize he didn’t like Calvinism, though. “I remember some of the first encounters I had with Calvinists,” Harris told another group of pastors during Mark Driscoll’s Reform and Resurge conference in Seattle in May. “I’m sorry to say that they represented the doctrines of grace with a total lack of grace. They were spiteful, cliquish, and arrogant. I didn’t even stick around to understand what they were teaching. I took one look at them and knew I didn’t want any part of it.”
….
For Harris, things started changing when he read Piper describe God’s glory and breathtaking sovereignty. Later, C. J. Mahaney, a charismatic Calvinist and founding pastor of Covenant Life, took Harris under his wing and groomed him to take over the church. Mahaney, 51, turned Harris on to his hero, Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th-century Calvinistic Baptist preacher in London. Mahaney assigned him a number of texts, such as Iain H. Murray’s Spurgeon vs. Hyper-Calvinism. “I would have been reading Christian comic books if left to myself,” Harris told me, flashing the characteristic self-deprecating humor he shares with Mahaney.

The theological depth attracted Harris. “Once you’re exposed to [doctrine],” he said, “you see the richness in it for your own soul, and you’re ruined for anything else.”

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The young people I talked to want churches to risk disagreement so they can benefit from the deeper challenges of doctrine. Joshua Harris said years after he graduated from high school, he bumped into his old youth pastor in the grocery store. The pastor seemed apologetic as they reminisced about the youth group’s party atmosphere, focused more on music and skits than Bible teaching, Harris said. But the youth pastor told Harris his students now read through Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.

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“If you really understand Reformed theology, we should all just sit around shaking our heads going, ‘It’s unbelievable. Why would God choose any of us?'” Harris said. “You are so amazed by grace, you’re not picking a fight with anyone, you’re just crying tears of amazement that should lead to a heart for lost people, that God does indeed save, when he doesn’t have to save anybody.”

Let me know your thoughts