Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Men at Work

God's demonstration of his own "righteousness" in the gospel, by which his justification of sinners is itself justified, presupposes a traditional doctrine that has fallen on hard times of late: the Foedus Operum, or, the "Covenant of Works."

Here's how the objection to this doctrine goes (which proponents of the Federal Vision never tire of voicing):

To speak of Adam's loving relationship with his Creator, or Jesus' loving relationship with his Father, as a "Pelagian brownie-point system of merit" is to reduce these familial, gracious, dynamic relationships to sterile, clinical, forensic levels. After all, both the first and second Adams were already enjoying God's favor from the very beginning, so to assume that they had to "earn" or "merit" what they were obviously already enjoying is clearly mistaken.

Plus, Adam's creaturehood made "earning" even the smallest blessing from his Creator impossible (even before the fall); since man can never bring the Almighty into his debt, all that we have is necessarily a gift of grace.

And furthermore, there is such a "disproportionality" between the requirement ("If you don't eat an apple...") and the reward ("... you'll earn eternal life!") that to speak of "merit" in this connection is silly. Doesn't Jesus teach us to say, after we've done our duties, that we are still "unprofitable servants" (Luke 17:10)?

Are these arguments strong? Weak? Why?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Divine Theodicy

Having proven himself incapable of attaining righteousness in the ordinary way (by obeying the law), fallen man must now receive that same righteousness as a "free gift" (Rom. 5:15-17). While the "doer of the law" in Romans 2:13 is recognized as righteous by virtue of his own righteous behavior, the "sinner" of Romans 5:8 is reckoned as righteous in spite of his bad behavior. As Luther famously put it: Simul iustus et pecator.

But this reckoning of sinners as righteous – which Paul calls "justification" – causes a problem for God. How can he just turn a blind eye to sin and transgression and retain his own righteousness?

To answer such a question requires a theodicy, which is a word that combines the Greek terms for "God" and "to justify." A theodicy, then, is a defense of God's behavior (as ridiculously presumptuous as this is).

Now most theodicies are put forth in order to solve a different problem, namely, how God can allow horrible things to happen to people as wonderful as we (this, however, doesn't appear to weigh too heavily on God's conscience). But the one place in the Bible where God does seem concerned about defending his behavior is in relation to his allowing wonderful things to happen to people as horrible as we.

Enter Romans 3:21-26.

In this passage, God's own "righteousness" is demonstrated by his putting forth his Son as a propitiation to quench his own wrath. Instead of merely overlooking wrongdoing, God postponed his just sentence until it could be directed at the sinless Savior instead of being poured out upon those whom he represents.

As in Romans 1:17, God's "righteousness" here is that salvific activity by which his commitment to uphold the right is vindicated at the same time as sinners who believe the gospel become righteous. Thus in his justification of sinners he himself in justified, and in his vindication of transgressors he himself is vindicated.

And as far as justifying himself for the rest of his behavior, God just doesn't seem interested....

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Recognition or Reckoning?

We have seen that pre-Damascus Saul’s boast of blamelessness as to the righteousness that comes from the Mosaic law was indeed a valid claim. The problem, however, was that the earthly blessings promised for obedience to the law were "refuse" compared to the eternal joy of gaining Christ and attaining the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:4b-11).

Because of human sin and the subsequent inability to secure the eternal, heavenly blessings by the ordinary means appointed at creation (obeying God’s commands), righteousness must be attained in an extraordinary way: through faith in Christ.

(And just so we're clear: The phenomenon of justification by faith is the divine response to the crisis brought on by universal sin (Rom. 1:18ff), and not, as the New Perspective claims, simply the solution to the exclusivity of Torah's boundary markers such as circumcision, sabbaths, and dietary laws.)

A comparison of Romans 2:13 and 5:8-9 demonstrates the necessity of another type of righteousness beyond the ordinary. In the former verse, one is justified because he is just—he is a "doer of the law." In the latter, however, the one who is justified is "ungodly" (v. 6) and a "sinner" (v. 8). This is an example of what Westerholm calls "extraordinary righteousness," and what Paul calls a "free gift of righteousness" and "justification by faith" (Rom. 5:17; 3:28).

Please don't miss this point: When it is ungodly sinners who are justified, it cannot be on the basis of their righteous conduct or "doing of the law" that this sentence is passed. Rather, they must be reckoned as righteous, receiving their justification "freely by grace" (Rom. 3:24), "without works" (Rom. 4:2, 5, 6), and as a "gift of righteousness" (Rom. 5:17), none of which can be said of those who are recognized as righteous because they are "doers of the law."

The contrast between ordinary righteousness and extraordinary righteousness, then, amounts to nothing less than the distinction between the law ("Do this and live") and the gospel ("It is finished!").

And this is precisely the distinction that the New Perspective misses.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Heaven and Earth, Abraham and Moses

We've been talking about how Paul could say, on the one hand, that the law's purpose is to stop every mouth and silence the boasting of man, but then on the other hand claim that he was blameless with respect to the law's demand for righteousness.

I think he meant what he said in both cases. Accordingly, in neither case was he talking about a Pharisaical or legalistic perversion of the law. Let me explain....

In Paul's allegorical interpretation of Abraham's family, he likens the patriarch's handmaid, Hagar, to the covenant made at Mount Sinai, which both produces bondage and points to the present, earthly Jerusalem. Sarah, however, corresponds to "the Jerusalem which is above," and points to the heavenly and eternal realities promised in the Abrahamic Covenant.

This is key to having a properly formed covenant theology. The Abrahamic Covenant promised a heavenly reward that is received simply by faith in the coming Messiah. The Mosaic Covenant, on the other hand, promised earthly, temporal, and typological rewards (long life in the land). And further, to retell the story of Adam's failure and typify the work of true Israelite and second Adam, the earthly blessings promised in the Mosaic Covenant were gained by obedience to the law. The principle that Paul extracts from the Mosaic Covenant is "Do this and live" (Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12; cf. Lev. 18:5).

But think about it: How could God expect Israel to obey his law in that complete, perfect, Romans 2 sense? Weren't they fallen and sinful? On that standard, wouldn't they have gone into exile the moment they crossed the Jordan?

Of course. This is why, in order to maintain the theocracy and tell the Adamic story they were supposed to tell, the "righteousness" God required of Israel consisted of having a relative measure of national fidelity to the law's demands.

The mistake of the Pharisees, then, was not that they thought the law demanded works (which it did) or that they thought they had earned the righteousness that Moses demanded (which they did). But their mistake was that they confused the relative fidelity required by the national covenant to retain the earthly land, with the perfect fidelity required by the creation covenant to secure the heavenly land.

And as I hope to flesh out later, conflating the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants (the way the New Perspective on Paul does) is an easy way to morph law and gospel into golawspel. And that doesn't save anyone....

Sunday, August 20, 2006

I Fought the Law (and the Law Won)

From the context of Romans, it seems clear that Paul's statements in 2:6-13 (culminating in "It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be justified") are not intended to portray the kind of "living faith" that believers must exhibit in order to be accepted by God at the final judgement. Rather, when we allow Paul himself to summarize what he thought he just taught, we hear him say, "[The law speaks] so that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may be held accountable to God" (3:19).

Hardly good news....

But there appears to be a discrepancy between his insistence in Romans that "through the law comes the knowledge of sin" (3:20), and his boast in Philippians that "as to the righteousness which is from the law, [I was] blameless" (3:6).

A common approach to this difficulty is to assume that, in one of these two statements, Paul is adopting a misunderstanding about the law that was common in his day. So his negative statements about the law (such as when he calls it a murderous ministry of death in II Cor. 3:6-7 or a source of bondage leading to servile fear in Gal. 3:23 - 4:7, cf. Rom. 8:15) are not really about the law per se, but about the Pharisaical misinterpretation of the law. So in this view, "law" = "legalism" (see Phil. 3:6 in the NIV).

Or if Paul really meant the negative things he said about the law in Romans, then his boast of being blameless according to the law's righteousness in Philippians must be understood to mean that he wasn't claiming to actually have been blameless, but he just thought he was when he was a legalistic Pharisee.

But, we are told, whatever he did mean, he certainly couldn't have meant what he actually said in both statements, could he? How could he say that the law's purpose was to condemn its subjects, while at the same time insisting that he blamelessly escaped such a sentence?

Friday, August 18, 2006

Will the "Doers of the Law" Please Stand Up?

We have seen that the term “righteous,” in its ordinary sense, describes the person who has performed the righteousness that the law prescribes, and that the result of this righteous conduct is justification and acquittal by the Judge on the last day. “The doers of the law,” Paul says, “will be justified” (Rom. 2:6-13).

But herein lies the problem....

Many NPP proponents claim that Rom. 2:6-13 describes normative Christian experience—the believer, through the power of the indwelling Spirit of the risen Christ, lives out his faith in active obedience to God, thus securing his final justification (which, according to N.T. Wright, is “on the basis of the entirety of the saint’s lived life”).

While confessional Presbyterian and Reformed theology certainly agrees with the New Perspective that Rom. 2:6-13 describes how justification would ordinarily occur, there is division over whether or not such an arrangement is possible given man’s sinfulness and inability to keep the law.

What do you think? Given the fact that “righteousness” and “justification” are said to be the possessions of the ones who are “doers of the law,” how ought we to understand the relationship of (Spirit-wrought) sanctification to justification at the last day?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Righteousness and Justification

Having stated that “righteousness,” in its ordinary usage, is a moral concept referring to what one has as a result of performing the good that the law requires, I will now try to defend this from Scripture.

The fact that Paul contrasts righteousness with sin and its synonyms is very relevant in this connection. Though there are many passages that demonstrate this (Rom. 5:7-8; 6:18-19), I’ll quote one for the sake of space: when seeking to prove his thesis that both Jews and Greeks are “under sin,” Paul quotes the psalmist:

“As it is written, ‘None is righteous, no, not one’” (14:1-3; cf. 53:1-3).

His point here in Rom. 3:9-10 is unmistakable—being “righteous” is the opposite of being “under sin,” thus placing both concepts in a moral category (at least in the passages cited).

When we turn, therefore, to the much-disputed Romans 2:6-13, we see that those who will be deemed righteous at the final judgment will be those who have done righteousness (which is in direct contrast to those are “self-seeking and obey unrighteousness”). And further, doing righteousness in this text consists of being a “doer of the law,” meaning that, for Paul, the law spells out the goodness required by God for justification.

“Righteous” in its ordinary usage, therefore, is a term that describes the one who does the righteousness that the law commands, and to be “justified” is to receive the treatment due to one who is indeed righteous and just.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Garden Variety Righteousness

At the risk of opening up a can of worms, I'd like to dabble a bit in some issues relating to the New Perspective on Paul.

As a disclaimer, the fact that I am an alumnus of Westminster Seminary California will probably open me up to the charge of being a bloodthirsty "heresy hunter" (as many critics of NPP are characterized), so I will do my best to keep the conversation civil.

My first proposition is as follows:

In its ordinary usage in Scripture, "righteousness" is a moral concept referring to what one has as a result of doing the good that the law requires.

Am I misdefining the term? Am I failing to do justice to its ecclesiastical or covenantal aspects? Have my Greek, forensic categories clouded my ability to appreciate the familial, loving, Hebrew context of this word's origin?

Fire away (but be gentle)....

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Mercy Ministry and the Two Kingdoms, Part Five: An Overlooked Passage

Though the two most oft-quoted passages relating to mercy ministry are Luke 10:30-37 and Galatians 6:9-10, it would be a difficult task to prove their direct relevance by demonstrating that they provide instruction to the church, as such, for developing diaconal ministry.

But interestingly, there is one particular passage in the New Testament that explicitly addresses the issue of the church officially giving financial aid to those in need. In this passage we not only learn that the church is responsible for mercy ministry, but we also are provided with a checklist telling us exactly who qualifies. Ironically, however, this passage rarely finds its way into discussions of mercy ministries (due either to neglect, or the fact that we don't like its conclusions).

In I Timothy 5:3-16 we encounter the Apostle Paul giving specific instructions to his disciple regarding the financial aid that the church gives to widows. Paul begins with the less-than-sensitive statement that Timothy, as an overseer of the church, is to "honor widows who are truly widows" (v. 3). The obvious inference here is that there is more to a woman’s being a "widow" than her husband dying. According to the apostle, to qualify as a widow in need of financial assistance from the church, a woman must be thus described:

"[She has] set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day… having a reputation for good works … she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work" (vv. 5, 10).

And this is not all. If she meets all of these requirements, but is either young enough to remarry or has children old enough to support her, she is not be given aid:

"But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. She who is truly a widow, [is] left all alone...."

In fact, Paul is blunt enough to write:

"Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband.... But refuse to enroll younger widows.... If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them" (vv. 9, 11, 16).

Paul’s reasoning behind these strict instructions is clear: "Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are really widows" (v. 16).

OK, will someone please explain to me how this passage—undoubtedly the most relevant to the issue in the New Testament—is only NOW finding its way into our discussion of mercy ministry?

Why has all our talk about whether the church is "an agent of common grace" completely ignored the only text in the New Testament that actually addresses what we’ve been discussing?

And in the light of this pericope, can anyone still insist that a local church's diaconate is responsible for the needy outside the bounds of its immediate care?

Friday, August 11, 2006

Mercy Ministry and the Two Kingdoms, Part Four: The Christian Individual

Another important qualification to the (undisputed) notion that churches should have ministries of mercy concerns the role of the Christian as an individual. The position that many adopt (but rarely attempt to prove) is that passages like the parable of the Samaritan in Luke 10:30-37 or Paul’s instruction to “do good to everyone” in Galatians 6:9-10 apply to the institutional Church as such, rather than to the individual believer.

Indeed, this distinction has not even occurred to many Christians.

But it must be admitted that there are countless activities in which individual believers may feel called to engage, yet which do not fall under the purview of the Church’s mandate, properly understood. For example, if the majority of the members of a local congregation believe that a particular political candidate promotes a more healthy vision for his constituents than his opponent, those believers, as citizens of the civil kingdom, are perfectly free to do whatever is in their power to trumpet his cause. But then to assume that the local church to which they belong should cast its vote accordingly is to make a huge—and illegitimate—leap. One Christian’s hero may be another Christian’s villain. Therefore for a church to align itself with a political party is to assume that the Bible favors a particular ideology which it never intended to address.

In short, the Church’s Great Commission (the preaching of the Word and administration of the Sacraments) is more limited than the various spiritual, social, and political causes in which individual believers are free to engage.

With respect to mercy ministries, it would be naïve to think that the issues of who should be the recipients of church-sponsored financial assistance, and what form that assistance should take, are cut and dry. What may appear as compassion for the disenfranchised in the eyes of one could easily look like an irresponsible handout to the lazy in the eyes of another. The age-old debate about whether it is better, in the long run, to give a hungry man a basket of fish or a pole and bait remains unsettled, with sincere believers on both sides of the issue.

My point, then, is simply that there is a place for the believer to act according to his own individual conscience without those actions becoming the official ministry of the Church. And if you think about it, for the Church to commandeer benevolence and trademark mercy is somewhat insulting to all the kind, caring Muslims, Catholics, and atheists out there.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Mercy Ministry and the Two Kingdoms, Part Three: The State

Though it is difficult to argue with the conclusions already reached that fallen creatures stand in need of mercy and that believers ought to play a role in alleviating people’s burdens, this does not really answer the question concerning the extent of the local church’s involvement in ministries of mercy. Many Christians and church leaders assume that the mere presentation of the need for mercy, coupled with some scattered proof-texts like those already cited, gives us all we need to develop a model for mercy ministry. But as I have been arguing, some qualifications are in order.

One of these concerns the divine institution of the State.

Due to man's fall and the massive upheaval and restructuring of the world and how he relates to it, the kingdom of man is now distinct from the kingdom of God, and the State is now distinct from the Church (the establishment of the State is hinted at in Genesis 4:15, in which the existence of the common grace city serves to reassure Cain that he would be protected by a divinely sponsored administration of justice after his killing of Abel. The State’s role is described explicitly in Romans 13:1ff).

The State, therefore, exists alongside the Church as a divinely ordained institution that administers the blessings of God to humanity. Their respective jurisdictions are distinct, of course, as are the blessings they provide, but the fact remains that they both serve to protect the interests of their subjects.

How does this apply to mercy ministries? One way is that it reminds us that the Church is not the only vehicle that God has created for the alleviation of mankind’s burdens. To place the entire responsibility for societal reform upon the shoulders of the Church, therefore, is not only asking too much, it is ignoring the existence and function of common grace city.

Furthermore, when churches such as Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City state that their vision is “to bring about personal changes, social healing, and cultural renewal through a movement of churches and ministries that change New York City and through it, the world,” one may reasonably inquire whether this is an example of the Church biting off more than she can—or was ever intended to—chew.

Mercy Ministry and the Two Kingdoms, Part Two: Mercy's Mandate

We have seen that, upon man’s fall, God’s one, all-encompassing kingdom was divided, and a new set of categories was introduced. Holy activity (worship and sacrifice) was now distinguished from common activity (sowing and reaping), and the sacred realm (the covenant community) became distinct from the secular realm (the common grace city). In a word, after man’s fall his world was divinely re-ordered, the spiritual kingdom of God and the temporal city of man being separated. And with the exception of the typological Jewish theocracy under the Mosaic covenant, this situation has continued ever since.

Due to his woeful and self-inflicted condition, man now stands in need of mercy, of pity, and of compassionate aid. Both the Old and New Testaments provide ample warrant for the ministry of mercy toward those in need. In Deuteronomy 24:19-22 we read:
“When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.”

Likewise in the New Testament, our Lord’s parable about the Samaritan—whom we call “the Good Samaritan,” though he was only doing what the law commanded—teaches us that being one’s neighbor entails more than mere geographical proximity, it means showing mercy. “You go,” Jesus told the crowd, “and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). This principle is also found in the writings of Paul: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:9-10).

There is no question, therefore, that the generous showing of mercy is commanded in both the Old and New Testaments, and ought to characterize the lives of all those who have been the beneficiaries of the bountiful mercy of God.

But a few qualifications are in order; Don't touch that dial....

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Mercy Ministry and the Two Kingdoms, Part One: Pick a Sphere, Any Sphere

The idea that the Church's mandate includes alleviating the woes of the world's poor is axiomatic for many. Part of Bono's appeal for Africa, for example, includes the fact that the Old Testament is replete with references to the poor and Israel's responsibility to care for the disenfranchised within her borders.

But as with most discussions about cult and culture, the issue is rarely as simple as our prooftexts suggest.

Crucial to a proper understanding of this topic is the recognition of the various spheres that God has ordained to meet the manifold needs of his creatures -- these spheres being the Family, the State, and the Church. But it is also important to note that these spheres reflect a "divine reordering" that necessarily took place after Adam’s fall. As Meredith Kline writes, "[From the beginning] the originally mandated temple-city of Adam encompassed the totality of life and activity of humanity within its assigned jurisdiction." Or to de-Klineanize it a little, before Adam's fall, there was one holy kingdom and one holy sphere.

In the postlapsum situation, however, "the… aspects and functions of the original city were distributed among several nonconcentric authority structures that replaced the one original universal kingdom." Thus "along with the institution of the State in this common grace realignment stands the institution of the Family, with its own share of the redistributed functions and its own sphere of authority" (Kingdom Prologue, p. 172).

In short, after the fall the holy aspects of life are consigned to the spiritual kingdom of Christ, while the institutions of the Family and the State are the vehicles for the furtherance of God's temporal, common grace agenda.

So the questions that remain include: Is material aid for the poor a common or redemptive errand? Which sphere(s) -- Church, Family, or State -- bear(s) responsibility for the poor? Is the poor's claim upon the Church only valid if those in need are believing members?

What think ye?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Sabbath: Not for Sale

As I've been trying to argue, the eschatological focus of the Church’s Sabbath observance bears witness to her identity as a foreign people, a peculiar polis, and a wandering tribe dispossessed "but for a moment."

For this reason, I would argue, the Church is never to see herself merely as culture’s errand-boy or a lackey of the State, existing to make life in this passing evil age a bit more comfortable. In their book Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon echo this sentiment well:
"The political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world…[to be] a new people, an alternative polis, a countercultural social structure.... The church does not exist to ask what needs doing to keep the world running smoothly and then to motivate our people to go do it.... The church has its own reason for being, hid within its own mandate and not found in the world. We are not chartered by the Emperor."

Contrary to transformationist-driven Sabbatarianism, which values the Sabbath as "an instrument to promote and preserve the social order," the two kingdoms paradigm sets forth a version of Sabbath observance that is more than a "socially-constructed coping device" designed to make us better, more productive citizens of Egypt.

The logic of our observance, therefore, is antithetical to that of old covenant Israel and modern day Kuyperianism. It is not the preservation of the nation or the recovery of some "Golden Age" of days gone by that gets us out of bed early on Sunday morning, but the desire to faithfully maintain the ethos of our eschatological counterculture. In so doing we do not affirm the world but condemn it, employing God’s divinely-ordained tool to subvert the culture and its "idols of leisure and consumption."

The complaints and fears of many evangelicals notwithstanding, our post-Constantinian context has freed the Church from the task of legitimizing the State, thereby enabling us to proclaim that the Sabbath is not for sale.