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Friday, December 30, 2011

All Things In Christ: Jesus Christ as Both Agent and Content of His Threefold Ministry

For many ages, God in dealing with His covenant people Israel sent them prophets who would teach spiritual truths of God's revelation as well as set before them the covenant sanctions divinely appointed in God's Law for covenant faithfulness and obedience to the Law or for unfaithfulness and disobedience to the Law.

God also appointed priests in Israel who would uniquely function to act on behalf of the covenant people in offering worship to God in the tabernacle (and later the temple), especially in the form of animal sacrifices. They would also represent God to the people in declaring people's sins atoned for once the appropriate sacrifices had been given, or declaring people ceremonially clean once the appointed washings and sacrifices had been made on behalf of someone who had become ceremonially unclean.

Moreover, God eventually raised up a number of kings in Israel, who were to rule with righteousness and integrity over the people, proclaiming and executing their royal decrees and judgments with equity and in accordance with God's revealed will in His Law. There was almost always a close connection between the uprightness of Israel's king and the spiritual state of the nation as a whole: when the king was wicked, the people often followed suit in neglecting God's Law and falling into gross idolatry; when the king was upright and for the most part sought to follow God's Law, the people respected the king, lived in peace, defeated their enemies at war, and worshipped the true God alone (even though there were definitely exceptions to this general principle).

All of these leaders acting in their distinct offices shared a special anointing of the Spirit of God in order to help them perform their tasks in Israel. By the power of the Spirit, the Word of the Lord came to the prophets, and the Spirit enabled them to speak boldly on behalf of God, and even to perform miraculous signs and wonders at times. The Levitical priests were ceremonially anointed with the blood of animal sacrifices, symbolizing the anointing of the Holy Spirit that came upon them and gave them the authority to perform the tasks of sacrifice and other services in the temple. The kings, and even some of the earlier judges of Israel, also received an anointing of the Holy Spirit that was supposed to enable them to rule well. Therefore we often read of David referring to king Saul as "God's anointed."

In the New Testament, we learn that Jesus Christ fulfills all three of these offices as God's Messiah. It is not surprising, then, to learn that "Messiah" actually means God's "Anointed One." When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit came down upon Him in a unique way in order to empower Him for His public ministry (Mt. 3:16; Mk 1:20; Lk 3:22; Jn 1:32). In fact, Jesus received the Spirit without measure (cf. the most probable interpretation of John 3:34 in context) in order that He, in the operation of His human nature apart from independent use of the powers of His divine nature, may be for us the ultimate Prophet, Priest, and King sent from God.

We understand that just as God promised in Deuteronomy 18:15 and 18:18, He has sent His final, eschatological prophet in the person of His own Son, Jesus. That much is clear from Hebrews 1:1-2, where we read that "God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son..." We also read in Matthew 21, in the parable of the landowners, that Jesus clearly compares Himself to the landowner's son who was sent only after the landowner had sent several other slaves to the vine-growers to gather the produce, only to be beaten, stoned, and killed--a clear reference to the prophets of old in Israel. The woman at the well in John 4, after hearing Jesus describe her marital history despite her never having known Jesus, correctly identifies Jesus as being at least a prophet (John 4:19).

In the New Testament we also read about Jesus being our great High Priest. Nowhere is this clearer than the book of Hebrews. At what is arguably the "crown" of the argument in the book of Hebrews, which describes and defends the ministry of Jesus as our divine and human sympathizer and high priest, in 8:1 we read, "Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens,"

Finally, at a number of points in the New Testament, we see a picture of Jesus as the great Lord, King, and ruler of all things. In Philippians 2, we read that one day everyone will confess Jesus as universal Lord (kyrios). In Revelation 19, we read of Jesus as the "King of kings" and "Lord of lords" (19:16) as well as the "Alpha and Omega" and "first and last" (22:13). When questioned by Pilate as to His kingship, Jesus replies "You say correctly that I am a king" (John 18:37). Other passages about Jesus' lordship and kingship could be multiplied, especially in light of the fact that the "kingdom of God" is associated with the lordship of Jesus, and the New Testament is replete with references to the kingdom of God, or "kingdom of Christ" or "kingdom of His beloved Son" (cf. Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 1:13).

So we see from a variety of texts that Jesus clearly expands and fulfills in His own person all three of these Old Testament offices, as the mediator between God and men, and as God's anointed Messiah.

What is even more amazing than this, though, is that what we have seen so far does not exhaust Christ's involvement in God's ministry to His people as mediator in these three offices. So far we have seen that Christ is the agent of--that is, the one doing all of the things that prophets, priests, and kings did in ancient Israel. But Christ is much more than that. He is also the direct content of the ministry carried out in each office.

With respect to the office of prophet, Jesus is not only the One who perfectly speaks and reveals the clearest revelation of God's truth; Jesus is also Himself God's eschatological Word and the focus of His own teaching. This is one reason Jesus is called the Word, or the Word of God, in places like John 1:1 and Revelation 19:13. Jesus' public teaching ministry was focused on explaining the Old Testament Scriptures, and we read in multiple places that the revelation of God in the Old Testament is Christo-centric. For example, the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 encounter the resurrected Christ, and were prevented from recognizing Him until He opened up all the Scriptures beginning with Moses and all the prophets, showing them how all things in those writings pointed forward to Him and His saving work. In the gospel of John, moreover, most of Jesus' encounters with the apostate Jewish religious leaders focus on issues of His own identity as the unique Son of God. This is true especially of chapters 5, 8, and 10. Therefore, whether teaching from the Old Testament about Himself, teaching with His own fresh words about His identity, or simply going about the other aspects of His Messianic mission, Jesus is both the eschatological prophet of God and the personification of the very Word of God Himself.

With respect to the office of priest, we have already seen that Jesus is our great High Priest who shares in our humanity and sympathizes with us in our weakness. However, we must also understand that Jesus, as our High Priest, is One who makes sacrifice to God on our behalf in order to atone for our sins, and this sacrifice is not another animal or human being outside of Himself. Rather, Jesus Christ as our great High Priest offers His very own life on the altar of Calvary as a final sacrifice for our sins. Pure and undefiled, He is the perfect fulfilment of the typological Paschal Lamb (1st Corinthians 5:8). In Hebrews 10:10 we read, "By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." In Romans 8, Jesus is described as being sent as a sin offering for us, in the likeness of human flesh. In the prophetic words of Isaiah 53, we read of God's promise to His suffering Servant (fulfilled in Jesus) that He would see His offspring and prolong His days on the condition that "He would render Himself as a guilt offering" (v.10b).

With respect to the office of king, Jesus doesn't merely rule distantly over many subjects, making royal decrees to be carried out (although it is true that His people in a sense act as "vice-regents" over Creation with Him). Rather, it is in Jesus Himself that all things hold together (Colossians 1:17). In Hebrews 1 we read that Jesus Himself actually upholds all things by the Word of His power (v.3). There may also be an idea similar to Colossians 1:17 latent in John's use of the language of "Word" ("Logos") in the gospel of John. After all, it is likely that John is adopting language that would be very meaningful to both ancient Greeks and ancient Jews in helping to describe who exactly the Son of God is in His divinity and as God's creative agent. The Greeks would have understood "Logos" to mean something like an "overarching organizing principle or power governing the whole cosmos." The Jews would have probably associated it with the personified "Wisdom" of God from sections of Jewish wisdom literature like Proverbs 8 where "Wisdom" was with God in the beginning and was the agent through which God created the world. Both the Jewish and Greek view fall short of the fullness of John's meaning, since by "Logos" John was referring to the personal, eternal Son of God who was both a distinct person from and a sharer in the divinity of the one Creator God the Father, as well as the One who "became flesh, and dwelt among us," (John 1:14). Nevertheless, the point would have been understood: Jesus, the "Logos" of God is not only the personal, ruling King of all the cosmos, but is also One who sovereignly exercises and functions as the power that organizes and upholds all Creation. Together with the Father and the Spirit, it is only in Him that we "live and move and exist" (Acts 17:28).

Therefore we see that in all three offices--that of prophet, priest, and king--Jesus Christ is both the agent and the content of His ministry. As God's ultimate Anointed One, He is both the Giver and the Given. He reflects God the Father's self-giving nature perfectly in His redemptive mediation.

No wonder union with the person of Christ Himself is such a central soteriological category for Paul and the other New Testament writers, as well as for contemporary Reformed theologians. No wonder Paul can talk about things like "the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth" (Ephesians 1:10). And no wonder we are to entreat each other to worship and give thanks to the exalted Christ all the more every day for our salvation and continued fellowship with Him.

Friday, December 23, 2011

God In Christ: A Brief Critique of J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig's Modified Apollinarian Christology

As many are aware, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. But according to Christians, it is not simply about the birth of a great man of God who was a powerful prophet, insightful moral teacher, or a critic of hypocritical and oppressive religious leaders in Israel. Rather, we affirm that the birth of Jesus marked the very literal entrance of deity into humanity. When Jesus was born, the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, was born as a human being so that He could identify fully with us and redeem us. He became a man in order to live a life of perfect obedience to God the Father, ending in a sacrificial death on our behalf, followed by a triumphant bodily resurrection.

Christmas is, then, not merely the celebration of the birth of the man Jesus, but a celebration of the miraculous fact that God became man. This act of God in history is commonly referred to as the "Incarnation."

Ever since the First Advent of Christ, followers of Christ have debated and discussed the meaning, mechanics, and implications of this great miracle. To this very day, Christians who would place themselves within the realm of catholic orthodoxy (the set of beliefs held by all true Christians at all times) disagree on the details and implications of the Incarnation. Christian theologians and philosophers alike still talk about what it means that "God became a man." Among modern scholars, J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig represent respected Christian philosophers who have written on these things. In 2003, they published a large work called Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, which studies historical issues of philosophy from a Christian perspective, as well as attempts to provide philosophical defenses of distinctive Christian doctrines like the Trinity.

Among the latter discussion of distinctive Christian doctrines, they include a section on Christology--the nature of the person of Christ and His Incarnation. They first outline the basics of the historical issues that the Church has dealt with relating to Christology, then go on to propose a unique view of Christ that I find very interesting and creative in the way it solves some traditional problems of Christology. Nevertheless, I also find their view problematic for several reasons.

Let me first follow suit in outlining some of the historical background of the Christology debate. Then I will go on to explain and critique the view espoused by Moreland and Craig.

Early on, the Church believed that the man Jesus who had died and risen again was also the divine Son of God. This is reflected in the portions of the New Testament now recognized by scholars as having their origin in earlier hymns and traditional creeds passed down orally by the earliest church. One example is the Carmen Christi, or 'Hymn of Christ' recorded in Philippians 2:6-11, which reads "...who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus 'Every knee will bow', of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

In the centuries following the ascension of Christ, the church had to wrestle with just how it is that Jesus is both man and God--just what it meant that the One on whom their worship of the one true God of Israel was now focused had truly become man.

Two tendencies emerged, eventually resulting in two positions condemned as heresy by ecumenical councils of the Church.

On the one hand, there were those of more of an "Alexandrian," or "Logos-flesh" persuasion who argued for ways in which Jesus could have a single nature which merged the human and the divine. Their chief concern was how to maintain a truly united and single person of Christ, and their views are broadly referred to as varying types of "monophysitism." Among these proponents, the most prominent theologian was a man named Apollinarius. His view of Christ was that the Logos, the eternally divine and immaterial second Person of the Trinity, functioned as the mind or soul of Jesus. In other words, the eternal and divine Logos took the place of the "rational soul" connected with the human flesh belonging to Jesus of Nazareth. Apollinarius thought that it was impossible for Jesus to have both a complete divine nature and a complete human nature, as he argued that that would result in a mere "indwelling" short of a true incarnation.

The problem with Apollinarius' view is that it results in a truncation of human nature in Jesus, because it denies that Jesus has a human soul. Thus under that scheme Jesus neither fully assumed true human nature, nor could he have truly redeemed humanity on the cross as a covenant representative. Therefore this view was eventually condemned as heresy by the Church. Along with it, "monothelitism," the view that there is only one will in Christ (not a distinct human will and divine will), was also condemned.

On the other hand, there were proponents of an "Antiochene," or "Logos-man" perspective. They argued for the view that Jesus Christ possessed two complete natures, one divine and one human. This position, in contradistinction to "monophysitism," is called "dyophisitism," or "dyophisite" Christology. Of special concern to the dyophisite theologians was maintaining that Jesus possessed a truly human "rational soul" distinct from the divine nature. It is only in this way that Jesus can identify truly and fully with our human nature in the completeness of body and soul.

Eventually in dyophisite Christology, the name of a man called Nestorius became associated with the view that because there must be two complete natures in Christ, one human and one divine, that there must necessarily be two persons in Christ. The Church found this position inconsistent with biblical and intuitive data about the person of Christ and therefore also condemned it as heresy.

After several centuries of debating Christological doctrine, the Church finally came to some basic conclusions at the council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. The members of this ecumenical council outlined some essential doctrinal limits on future Christological speculation that would seek to remain orthodox. They basically endorsed dyophisite Christology as discussed above, but also affirmed the necessity of confessing Jesus Christ as one undivided Person. They believed Jesus must possess two natures which neither mixed with each other nor were separated, but which were united together in the one Person of Christ, each nature retaining its distinct essential properties.

Here is a famous paragraph expounding the conclusions of the council:

"We...confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in mahood, truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood, like us in all things except sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God according to the manhood, one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the difference of the natures being by no means taken away because of the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not divided or separated into two Persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ."

Some of the basic disagreements of the old controversy between monophysites and dyophisites resurfaced again, however, during the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation and the years following.

Lutherans tended (and still do to this day) to conceive of the two natures of Christ as distinct and complete in and of themselves (in basic agreement with Chalcedon), yet seeing the human nature of Christ being in such close union with the divine nature, being even "permeated" by it in some sense, that some attributes of the divine nature are communicated to the human nature. Luther took this concept, together with distinguishing several different senses in which a thing may be "in place," and came to understand something of what may be called the "ubiquity" of Christ's flesh. That is, according to Lutherans, there is a sense in which even Christ's human nature is able to be present in more than one restricted locality, for instance, present in multiple places where the Lord's Supper is being celebrated at once. Therefore Lutherans believe that even Christ's flesh is truly sacramentally united to the elements of the Lord's Supper such that communicants physically partake of Christ's body.

The Lutheran view seems problematic in its idea of the communication of attributes between the divine and human nature. After all, once human, creaturely nature begins to share in essential divine attributes, in what sense could it be said to still be truly human nature? The gap between the infinite being of the Creator and the contingent and limited being of the creature seems too wide to traverse in any ontological sense. Therefore critics of the Lutheran view see a real danger of it lapsing into a kind of monophysitism antithetical to Chalcedon.

Reformed, or more Calvinistic, theologians, differed with the Lutheran view. While they said that the hypostatic union of Jesus' two natures was even more intimate than the union between the soul and body of a normal human being, they sharply affirmed the necessity of maintaining the perpetual distinctness of Jesus' two natures such that neither ever shared any of the essential attributes of the other. So, for instance, Reformed theologians to this day deny any local presence of Jesus' flesh in physical connection with the elements of the Lord's Supper (although they still affirm the objective 'Real Presence' of the whole Person of Christ such that partakers relationally commune even with Jesus' human nature but only by the operation of the Holy Spirit and the omnipresent divine nature of Jesus received through faith, united forever to Jesus' humanity). The problem with the Reformed view of Jesus' two distinct natures, minds, and wills, is that it tends toward an extreme dyophisitism, inevitably bordering at times on a Nestorian view (two whole persons in Christ).

There are others, especially in the last couple of centuries, who have held to a kind of "kenotic" view of the incarnation of Christ, such that the meaning of Christ "emptying Himself" is to be interpreted as Christ somehow divesting Himself of His divine attributes when He enters into our humanity. There are different nuances within the views of specific proponents of broadly "kenotic" Christology, but the main problem with pretty much all the views is that they seem to imply that Jesus actually changed in His divine nature. Such an implication goes against almost all traditional Christian philosophy of theism, the biblical data on divine immutability, and the biblical data on the deity of the incarnate Christ. Therefore truly kenotic views are not really options for faithful Bible-believing Christians.

Where is the Church to go from here, then? It seems one must either affirm some kind of unity of the natures of Christ that is so "of a piece" that it mixes or obliterates the distinctions between the two natures, or one must end up at least implicitly affirming the reality of two complete persons in Christ--one divine, one human.

It seems William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland have come up with an interesting alternative to traditional Lutheran and Reformed Christologies. It is very creative and effectively solves some important problems of Christology; nevertheless, I'm afraid it comes up short in some highly significant ways, and cannot be consistently maintained as an orthodox option.

I regard the two men as faithful evangelical Christian scholars with great minds for philosophy, from whom I have learned much about epistemology and other issues of Christian apologetics and philosophy. So I hope what I offer here is a charitable critique. I don't believe either of these men are heretics; no fallible human theologian is fully self-consistent, or else every theologian would be a heretic! For the smallest mistakes in their premises would lead to very, very bad conclusions. So here I only hope to point out inconsistency and unavoidable heretical implications of their Christology, not that their view as they themselves present it is inherently heretical.

One other note: I'm not actually even 100% sure that both men agree at every point in their book. For simplicity's sake I just assume that they wrote the Christology section of their book together and are in basic agreement with each other. I suppose I should also say that I do not know for certain that they hold the same view today as they did back in 2003. So again, for simplicity's sake (and because a very brief investigation of online articles revealed no change in their view), I am assuming that they still hold a similar view today.

Craig and Moreland affirm three basic points in the outlining of their Christology.

1) They affirm the limits of Chalcedon as orthodoxy. They believe that Christ has one "individual essence" and two "kind essences" (one united person and two distinct natures).

2) They postulate together with Apollinarius that the eternal Logos functions as the "rational soul" of Jesus. They actually believe that Apollinarius may have been misunderstood, and that what he was really getting at was that the Logos exemplified perfect human personhood as an archetypal man minus the human flesh. Thus, the "human nature" of Jesus was completed only and precisely by the union of the Logos with Jesus' human flesh. They argue that there is biblical support for understanding the Logos as possessing all the qualities of perfect human personhood in the doctrine of the creation of man in the imago Dei, or the "image of God." They escape the charge made against the condemned version of Apollinarianism because in their view Jesus truly has a "human" soul...that soul just happens to be more than a human soul. It is consubstantial with all the eternal divinity of the Logos, and all the human aspects of that Logos become for Jesus the immaterial human soul connected with His flesh. Therefore the union of the Logos with mere human flesh is sufficient to constitute true humanity and Jesus can identify fully with us.

They claim this "rehabilitation" of Apollinarius' view illuminates the doctrine that came to be known as "enhypostasia," the teaching that Jesus' human nature only receives subsistence from its union with the Logos. That is, not just any human person could have been the incarnate Son of God. Jesus' human nature only becomes hypostatic in union with the eternal Logos. There could not have been a "Jesus" the Son of God walking around apart from the Logos, even if he possessed a complete human nature of body and soul and was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Craig and Moreland claim that enhypostasia may be incoherent apart from something like their Christological model.

3) They believe the divine aspects of the Logos were voluntarily made largely "subliminal" or "subconscious" during Jesus' humiliation (the period of time spanning mainly from His birth to His death and burial). They appeal to depth psychology--psychoanalytic approaches to therapy and research that take the unconscious into account. In this way, they attempt to preserve Jesus' true human experience, identifying Himself fully with the weakness of our finitude, despite the fact that His soul, or the immaterial component of His humanity, is the divine Logos. And they speak of these "subliminal" divine attributes and abilities coming to the surface in Jesus' life recorded in the gospels, for example, in His performance of miracles or times when He exhibited supernatural knowledge beyond that acquired by normal human means.

They admit that this view of Christ implies monothelitism (one will). But because of their view of the Logos as exemplifying nothing less than perfect human personhood minus a physical body, the theological charge against monothelitism leading to its historical condemnation is considered vitiated. Also, in response to one who would point to Jesus' prayer in the garden of Gethsemane before His arrest (a prayer that the Father's will, not His own, be done), as a counterexample of monothelitism, Craig and Moreland seem to want to say that the distinction of wills made here is not between a human mind and divine mind in Jesus, but between the Father's will and the Logos' will as incarnated and subjected to human weakness, the essentially divine attributes of the Logos being made more subliminal, and the independent use of such not being made available to Jesus' human nature during His state of humiliation. After all, Jesus was obviously not praying to Himself, but to the Father.

What shall we say by way of critique, then? I have three overlapping points to make about why I think this model of the nature of Christ is too problematic to accept.

First of all, the Logos cannot function as the human soul of Jesus because even if there is a sense in which the reason humans are said to be made "in the image of God" is that there is an analogical likeness to the being of the Logos, the Logos Himself nevertheless is an infinite and divine ontological unity. There simply is no way to parse out truly "human" aspects of the Logos and say that that is what constitutes the immaterial side of Jesus' humanity.

Second, saying that the divine attributes of the Logos were largely "subliminal" or "subconscious" during Jesus' humiliation does not offer much of a solution to the first problem, not least of all because it still cannot posit a truly human and finite ontological status to Jesus' soul. Another problem, however, is that true humanity includes a truly human subconscious or subliminal mental life. That subconscious aspect of human nature cannot be replaced by a set of divine attributes--or consciousness of divine attributes--or else human nature is compromised. And if Craig and Moreland wanted to posit a duality in the subconscious life of Christ, such that there was divinity or consciousness of divinity there as well as the normal human subconscious mind, I suppose that could help their case. But it would be very strange, indeed, and it may even be incoherent insofar as the human subconscious would seem to have to be in direct contact with the subliminal divine consciousness, compromising the limitedness of human subconscious knowledge, etc.

Third, on Craig and Moreland's proposed model, Christ's atoning work on the cross would not seem to be possible. There are several reasons for this. First of all, at a fundamental level, once the criticisms laid out thus far have been established, Jesus' human nature is seen as being compromised and He can therefore not identify fully with humanity as a head covenant representative, especially in becoming a substitute sacrifice on the cross. Their Christology lapses quickly into monophysitism; Jesus no longer has both a divine and a human nature, but rather a divine nature with human flesh, and the old charges against historical Apollinarianism hold.

There is another problem related to the atonement on Craig and Moreland's model, though, as well. According to a traditional penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement (which I believe is demonstrably biblical), Jesus undergoes physical and spiritual death according to His human nature. He bore in His body and soul the full wrath of the curse of God's Law against our sin, including physical death and full relational estrangement from blessed fellowship and spiritual communion with God.

In the case of this modified Apollinarian Christology offered by Craig and Moreland, though, how is this kind of atonement possible? Jesus would have no truly human soul to be spiritually estranged from God or to bear the wrath of God against human sin; there would necessarily either be an ontological and relational breach in the immanent Trinity between the Father and the Logos-Son, or we would have to understand the expression of divine wrath which fell on Christ for us as being restricted to the physical death of Jesus--the separation of soul and body and the cessation of bodily animation.

The former option is extraordinarily problematic because even though there is an anthropomorphic/analogical (nevertheless real) sense in which God can suffer in contingent covenantal relationship to us (for example, in the grieving of the Spirit by our sin), there is no biblical or logical way in which deity itself can ontologically or metaphysically suffer as we do, change as we do, or die. Therefore the eternal divine Logos can never be immanently divided from the rest of the Godhead or suffer the wrath of the curse of divine Law against sin as Jesus is said to have done on the cross.

The latter option is just as problematic because the wrath of God against sin--the covenant curses of His Law--involve more than physical death. As we see in the case of the eternal fate of the wicked described in places like the final judgment passages of Revelation, the punishment for sin is not only the introduction of physical death into the world, but also the administration of what is called the "second death." In Jesus' teaching on Gehenna, the fate of the wicked is an utter ruination of both body and soul that is of an eternal quality (an eternal duration for sinners, and of an eternal worth for Christ given His identity as the sinless and divine Son of God). This is the ultimate punishment for sin that Jesus must be understood as undergoing in His human nature on the cross if He is to atone for sinful human beings, and it cannot fit within Craig and Moreland's Christological scheme.

In sum then, even though Craig and Moreland's proposal--a modification (or perhaps "clarification") of Apollinarianism--provides unique conceptual solutions to traditional Christological problems like how to affirm both enhypostasis and a truly dyophisite incarnation (one person of Christ with two natures), or how to avoid letting belief in two complete and distinct natures in Christ lapse into belief in multiple persons in Christ, the proposal presents far weightier problems than it solves.

It fails to provide the incarnate Christ with a truly human "rational soul." It fails to provide Jesus with a truly human and finite subconscious mind. And it fails to account for the reality of the atonement, where the atonement is understood as Christ bearing the wrath of God against human sinners and suffering both physical and spiritual death according to the human nature.

What of Jesus' miracles during His earthly ministry? Are they not the result of Jesus' latent divine nature springing up occasionally into the volition and power of His humanity? That's hardly a necessary conception of Jesus' miracles. As God's eschatological prophet who would come and fulfill all the Law and the Prophets, Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and in His human nature depended on the empowerment and illumination of the Holy Spirit throughout the course of His humiliation, just as any other human being would have to. And what of the garden of Gethsemane? Craig and Moreland are right to point out that, with personhood in view, Jesus' human nature was not praying to Jesus' divine nature. Jesus was indeed praying to the Father. However, in defense of dyothelitism (two wills in Jesus), we may respond by pointing out that there is no possible way Jesus' divine nature possessed a will different than that of the Father's own divine nature, as both are eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent. It was only Jesus' truly human soul which in its limitedness and weakness had come to tremble at the prospect of Golgotha and the pending events which were to transpire there in a few short hours.

Whereas Lutheran tendencies toward monophysitism result in essentially divinizing Jesus' flesh (if not also His human soul), Craig and Moreland's tendency toward another kind of monophysitism logically end up at least divinizing Jesus' human soul, still compromising His humanity in an important way.

While some questions remain unanswered, not least of which how two complete natures including distinct minds could ever be united in a single "person," it seems we must continue to affirm with Reformed theologians a traditional dyophisitism that is ever so careful to keep the two natures of Christ eternally distinct from one another with regard to their essential properties, even when intimately united in the one Person of Christ. For it is only through the truth and reality of this doctrine, established long ago by our wise fathers at the council of Chalcedon, that the eternal Son of God could have come, been born of a woman, grown, lived in true dependence on the Father and the Spirit, died an atoning death for sinners, risen again from the dead victorious over human death, and can stand offering prayers of intercession for us today before the Father in heaven, as our truly human High Priest and immortal Savior.

Merry Christmas and worthy is the Lamb forever!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 2 "God" Sec. B. "God the Son"

"Christ is the eternal Son of God. In His incarnation as Jesus Christ He was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Jesus perfectly revealed and did the will of God, taking upon Himself human nature with its demands and necessities and identifying Himself completely with mankind yet without sin. He honored the divine law by His personal obedience, and in His substitutionary death on the cross He made provision for the redemption of men from sin. He was raised from the dead with a glorified body and appeared to His disciples as the person who was with them before His crucifixion. He ascended into heaven and is now exalted at the right hand of God where He is the One Mediator, fully God, fully man, in whose Person is effected the reconciliation between God and man. He will return in power and glory to judge the world and to consummate His redemptive mission. He now dwells in all believers as the living and ever present Lord."

Nothing in this section is questionable in light of Scripture. I only wish there were more detail; it's difficult to squeeze every bit of biblical doctrine on a particular topic into a confession of faith focused on articulating central non-negotiables. This section does focus on the important things about the person of Christ: His identity and nature as the incarnated Son of God, His personal obedience to the Law, and the crown of His work of mediation at Calvary. Still, I wonder if the writers couldn't have easily included statements about Jesus' three offices (Prophet/Priest/King), and about how He fulfilled all of the major covenant promises of the Old Testament (especially the covenants made with Abraham and David).

In this section it is said that the cross made "provision" for the redemption of men from sin. While this is wholly true, I would personally want to also include a statement about the effectual nature of Christ's atonement for His people. It is a perfectly legitimate choice by the SBC to leave open the possibility of interpreting the Faith & Message (and the Bible) in a Calvinistic way or not with regard to the atonement. I am glad to see that the F&M at least uses the language of reconciliation being "effected" in the Person of Christ. Still, this can be interpreted in either way.

Even though it's a very specific doctrinal issue and the F&M takes neither a specifically positive nor negative position on it, the doctrine of the extent and effects of the atonement of Christ is an important enough doctrine to me that I must say a few words about it.

The Bible affirms a universal offer of the gospel (e.g. "Christ died and rose again for sinners such that if you put your trust in Him, you will be saved"). However, the Bible also affirms an electing particularity in God's saving love which is connected, not disconnected, with the means by which God saves--the cross of Christ. The limited extent of the atonement, though, is not a mere theological inference from unconditional election. It has both theological and biblical support, controversial as the interpretation of some passages may be.

I am not going to take the time to spell out in full detail here all the reasons particular redemption has strong biblical support. I can only mention several lines of reasoning and direct readers to an essay I wrote a while back which more fully fleshes out a few of these points:

Several lines of support for particular redemption include:
-Trinitarian agreement in the sovereign accomplishment and application of redemption
-The explicitly limited priestly intercession of Christ in Scripture (see John 17, Romans 8), which cannot be separated from His priestly work of atonement
-The objective nature of penal substitutionary atonement, as pictured in the Old Testament sacrificial system and fully accomplished in Christ (this is where John Owen's "double payment" argument comes in, and remains a forceful argument as long as one is careful to make important distinctions of the objective (decretal) and subjective (historical) aspects of a person's position before God, as well as affirming the truly objective nature of the atonement and it's direct connection with imputation)
-The blood of Christ explicitly purchases the New Covenant promises which in Ezekiel 36 and Jeremiah 31 portray unilateral divine activity in regeneration of His covenant people
-In Scripture, there are many places where the atonement is explicitly described in effectual (rather than merely provisional) terms. For example: (John 11:51-52; Revelation 5:9; and even 2nd Corinthians 5:14, one of the passages using universal language often used to argue against particular redemption, despite the fact that the "all" are said to die [in union with Christ according to Pauline categories], and hence are saved).

In summary, I love sections of evangelical confessions of faith about the person and work of the Son of God. These doctrines represent the very heart and center of the Christian faith. They also represent what will be the focus of our worship throughout the endless ages in glory, if Revelation has anything to say about the matter.

Details aside, we can all agree that Jesus has died for sinners, risen from the grave, reigns from heaven, is coming again, and offers all who hear the gospel eternal life through faith in His name. And for this I sing, "Hallelujah to the Lamb for He is worthy!"

Monday, November 21, 2011

Get More Bibles to the Global South

Copy and paste and visit this link (sorry, had trouble making it a hyperlink):

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 2 "God" Sec. A. "God the Father"

"God as Father reigns with providential care over His universe, His creatures, and the flow of the stream of human history according to the purposes of His grace. He is all powerful, all knowing, all loving, and all wise. God is Father in truth to those who become children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. He is fatherly in His attitude toward all men."

One of the things in this section that I want to discuss is the distinction made between "Father in truth" and "fatherly in His attitude."

It seems that the F&M here wants to affirm both the scriptural truth that fallen sinful human beings are only made spiritual sons and daughters of God by the adoption that comes with salvation by faith in Christ the eternal Son, as well as the scriptural truth that God rules with providential care over men such that He extends common grace to all men and gives rain and sunshine both to the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45).

While common grace is an extraordinarily important category to affirm from Scripture--the truth that God's mercy is over all His Creation (Psalm 145:9)--it may be slightly misleading to use the language of "fatherly attitude" toward all men. Clearly, there is a difference in at least the kind of "fatherly attitude" God had toward Israel as opposed to the nations He used Israel to drive out of the promised land and utterly destroy. Yes, God loves all men and desires their salvation in at least one sense. But covenantally speaking, God graciously entered into covenant with the nation of Israel alone, and that not for any reason having to do with their righteousness or might compared to other nations. God bound Himself to Israel as her Husband, as Christ does the Church in the New Covenant. And there's a difference between the fatherly attitude of God toward His covenant people (who have repented and trusted in Him ultimately because of His gracious work in their hearts) and His posture of readiness and good will toward those even outside the covenants. The difference is nowhere more clearly seen than in the scriptural texts that also speak of God's hatred for and anger with unrepentant sinners (for example, see Psalm 5:5). Such things are never said of God's attitude toward the Church.

"Fatherly in His attitude toward all men" gets at an important aspect of the universal love and essentially gracious character of God, but for those who recognize the category of sonship under God as primarily a scriptural category of salvation in Christ by faith, it may threaten to blur the distinction between being "in Adam" and "in Christ." It may fail to adequately articulate the important distinction between common and saving grace.

I'm personally more comfortable with the language of "common grace" than with "fatherly attitude toward all men," but as long as the above distinctions are kept in mind, I don't have any final or overwhelming problems with the phrase used in the F&M. We must affirm that God the Father has the personal attributes we would expect of a "divine father." He is the ultimate provider of human needs, He loves His Creation, and shows mercy to all men.

The only other thing I would mention about this section is that I would prefer a stronger statement of God's providence over history than that He reigns over the "flow of the stream of human history according to the purposes of His grace." "Flows" and "streams" sound too vague and generalized. I believe the Bible teaches God's exhaustive, active governing of the details of history according to the purposes of self-glorification especially in dispensing grace. Passages that give credence to this idea would include, among others: Proverbs 16:33; Daniel 4:35; Ephesians 1:11; Isaiah 46:8-11.

Obviously this idea creates theological problems that the Bible addresses to an extent, although perhaps not to our ultimate intellectual satisfaction. But the idea of God's exhaustive, actively exercised sovereignty over the minutia of all history is designed by God to give comfort and encouragement to believers, and to cause His people to trust that He is wisely working gracious and holy purposes even through all the evil and suffering that occurs in the He has decretally intended to come to pass from all eternity (though He commands against and disapproves of the evil committed by the sinful human and demonic moral agents). We see the clearest examples of this dynamic in the stories of Joseph (summed up in Joseph's word to his brothers in Genesis 50:20) and the crucifixion of Christ as explained by the apostles after the fact (Acts 2:22-24; 4:27-28). The only reason I make the theological leap to applying the same dynamic to all of the rest of history as well is the presence of passages like those listed above about God's sovereignty and providence more generally. They speak just as strongly about all of history.

Again, I may be quibbling over mere semantics. It is likely that the vagueness in this section of the F&M is intentional to allow for a variety of specific views on God's providence among churches wishing to align themselves and cooperate with the SBC. And no one should be faulted for that. Fellowship ought not to be broken over such details of doctrine. Not to say that even details of doctrine are unimportant, but this specific issue is something that the Church universal has wrestled with understanding and articulating for 2000 years now. Still, my personal conviction on the issue remains, and I pray the Church (including myself) will grow in unity and understanding in this area until we all attain to the fullness of spiritual maturity in Christ!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 1 "The Scriptures"

"The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation."

I agree wholeheartedly with every word of this section of the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message. The only reason I bothered to write a post about it was to comment on one detail.

I wish they had gone further in the second to last sentence.

It says that Scripture is "the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried." True enough, as far as it goes! And possibly sufficient for the Message's purpose of delineating a religious confession of faith.

I only wish that it used more exhaustive, universal language about the kinds of ideas and opinions that should be tried by Scripture--namely, all of them. Maybe "religious" is a sufficient term if one thinks of all ideas as being "religious" in the sense of being related to God in some way--antagonistic, indifferent, or otherwise. But at least in our contemporary context, I think that "religious" brings to mind an unfortunately limited realm of thought containing only Theology Proper and specifically church-related, scripture-related, and ritual-related notions.

In actuality, Scripture is the ultimate standard of all truth, as the infallible witness to God's ultimate self-revelation in Christ. All things are related to God, derive their most fundamental meaning only in relation to His existence and character. Therefore there is a sense in which the Bible is not only true in all that it addresses, but it actually addresses everything, even if less directly or obviously in some cases. That is not to say it addresses everything in the same way, or with the same sets of concerns, or in the same categories as those in which we think of things.

For example, the Bible is not concerned to give us a scientifically detailed account of the mechanics of Creation. Now, once we have interpreted Genesis 1 and 2 with careful regard for literary, cultural, historical, and linguistic context, as well as Christocentric hermeneutics and a regard for a scriptural Analogia Fide (a task that is not easy or devoid of controversy even among solid, faithful evangelical interpreters), in principle we could deduce from the biblical text limits on what a faithful Christian may or may not believe even about the "scientific" details of the mechanics of Creation or the lives of the first human beings. For example, even though I am open to a "Framework Hypothesis" view of the six days of Creation as described in Genesis, I am not open to understanding Adam and Eve as anything other than two literal, historical people who were the first human beings (because of convictions I have about what the rest of Scripture also says about Adam, etc.)

In conclusion, this post may have been unnecessary because the Baptist Faith & Message also refers to "all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions" being subject to Scripture as the ultimate standard of truth. "Creeds" here could refer (and interpreted in the best light, should probably be thought of as referring) to all human ideas whatsoever. Nevertheless, I am afraid the word "creed" has the same problems as what I said above about the word "religious." That's why, if I had written the document myself (a scary thought indeed), I would have used clearer and more explicitly exhaustive and universal language about just which human ideas must be subject to the written Word of God (all of them). But I think this chapter of the Faith & Message is great! It has an appropriately high esteem for the written Word.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

New Series Idea

I'm considering starting a new blog series where I go through some of the major confessions of faith and give some of my personal thoughts about their theological accuracy and balance in the light of (at least my current understanding of) Scripture.

Confessions would, perhaps, include the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message (this might be up first, as it is shorter and very relevant to my context--I may get some interesting feedback from personal friends!); the Augsburg Confession (a Lutheran document); and the Westminster Confession of Faith (a Presbyterian confession). It's possible to also include sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, although it is extraordinarily long and highly philosophical instead of being primarily scriptural, due to the Catholic Church's view of the authority of Tradition. So that might be a waste of time. But we'll see. I may also go on from the Westminster Confession to discuss the Westminster Larger Catechism. Who knows how long I'll actually keep this whole thing up.

Right now it's just an idea. If you get a chance, let me know what you think!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Romans Series 5: God's Impartial Judgment, Rm 2:1-16

Romans 2:1-16 (Given here is an even more formally equivalent translation than the NASB or NRSV, also with a non-traditional syntactic choice made on v.7 that is not decisive for any central doctrine or the main point of this passage, as well as a preference for 'condemned' rather than 'judged' as the translation of krith─ôsontai in v.12. See endnote for references to precedents for these choices).

Let's heed the Word of God as it comes to us through the word of man, namely, the inspired apostle Paul. The text is longer this time, but necessarily so because it is truly one unified sub-argument of a larger unit:

"1 Therefore you are inexcusable, O every man of you who judges, for in what you judge the other, you condemn yourself, for you, the one judging, practice the same things. 2 And we know the judgment of God is according to truth upon the ones practicing such things. 3 But do you reckon this, O man who judges the ones practicing such things and yet doing the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you scorn the riches of His kindness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not realizing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? 5 But according to your hardness and unrepentant heart, you store up wrath for yourself on a day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6 who will recompense each man according to his works. 7 To some, on one hand, according to endurance of working of good, glory and honor and incorruptibility, as seeking life eternal. 8 To those, on the other hand, being selfishly ambitious and disobeying the truth, but obeying unrighteousness, wrath and anger. 9 There will be affliction and distress on every soul of man working evil, of Jew first and of Greek; 10 but glory and honor and peace to everyone working good, to Jew first and to Greek. 11 For there is no respecting-of-persons with God. 12 For as many as sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and as many as sinned under the Law will be condemned by the Law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles not having the Law by nature practice the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a Law to themselves--15 they demonstrate the work of the Law written in their hearts, bearing joint witness with their conscience; and their thoughts will be accusing them or even defending them between one another, 16 on a day when God judges the secrets of men, according to my gospel, through Christ Jesus."

What we have before us once again, in this larger section on the wrath of God against sinful men, is a sobering section focused on the weighty reality and certain of God's judgment. From 1:18 onward so far, Paul has been explaining God's wrath against ungodliness and idolatry, especially as expressed in His handing sinners over to their own lusts for their further dishonor.

In this new section we shift our temporal focus from how God is revealing His wrath in history, to a much more climactic scene. We will now stand and look on at a greater scene at the end of history, before the great white throne of the heavenly Judge, and we will learn about the proceedings that will take place there.

Sixteen verses is a lot to handle at once, and this section is especially jam-packed with content that has caused even the most highly trained faithful biblical scholars to disagree with one another on this point or that point concerning its interpretation. However, I think that it is important for us to keep the section together, reading it as a whole, in order to keep ourselves focused on Paul's overall direction of thought, and in order to keep the smaller verses and sentences under consideration within their larger context.

I will ask and answer several poignant questions about the text, but only once I have given a very brief overview kind of exposition of it--paying attention to the most important aspects of its structure and content.


Verse 1 contains Paul's direct answer to an anticipated attitude his audience may have in response to what he has just been saying at the end of chapter 1. What was he saying? He was listing off a host of different kinds of sin which ensnare ungodly people who reject God. What is the attitude Paul is countering here? Evidently it is one of judgmental self-righteousness. It is coming from the kind of person who says, "I am or did such-and-such because I am good, unlike those wretched people you were talking about in chatper 1. I'm glad they'll get the due penalty of death for their sin! Serves them right! I'm safe from that kind of judgment."

Pauls response: "You have no excuse, because you do the same things! When you judge others for these sins, you condemn yourself because you yourself are also guilty of sin."

Verse 2 sets the theme for the rest of the section: "...the judgment of God is according to truth upon the ones practicing such things."

Verses 3 through 5 then speak to the absurdity of the self-righteous sinner's attitude. In essence, Paul says, "Do you really think that you, abusing the kindness of God meant to lead you to repentance, and practicing the very same sins for which you are judging others, are going to escape the judgment of God? No way! Your hardness of heart, and stubbornness, and lack of repentance, are only storing up wrath for you."

Verse 6 is in a sense the thesis of the rest of vv. 7-16, and echoes Psalm 62:12: "God will recompense each man according to his works."

Verses 7 through 10 serve to explain verse 6 more fully, and they constitute a structure known in literature as a "chiasmus." That's where a series of ideas are presented in a certain order, and then presented once again in reverse order usually with slightly different language. In other words, it would go something like 'ABBA' or 'ABCCBA' or 'ABCDDCBA', etc.

Here, the outer verses of v.7 and v.10 describe positive situations of God's recompensing man for his works: v.7 glory and honor and peace (or simply eternal life) for those who endure and persevere in doing good works, seeking these things; v.10 glory and honor and peace to everyone working good, to Jew first and also to Greek.

The inner verses of v.8 and v.9 contrast that with negative situations of God's recompense: v.8 wrath and anger for those who selfishly disobey the truth but obey unrighteousness; v.9 affliction and distress for those working evil, for Jew first and also for Greek.

Verse 11 asserts God's impartiality: "...there is no respecting-of-persons with God." Because God's judgment accords with works, there is no favoritism in God on people of certain color, age, gender, or--as we will see--people with certain amounts of revelation or common covenantal privileges like the Jews had. In fact, all of chapter 2 of Romans here probably has first century Jews in mind who were boasting in their external covenant privileges, possession of special revelation (like the Law), and bloodline relationship to the Jewish fathers of old.

Verses 12 through 16 form another small sub-section, and the main point is to prove what Paul said in verse 11 about God's impartiality. He does this by reference to the case of the Gentiles. Paul says that sinning apart from the Law (like Gentiles do) results in death, just like sinning under the Law results in being judged by that very Law and therefore also results in death. Verse 13 declares, "For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified." So Paul has countered the argument that possessing the special revelation of the Law as a Jew in the first century gives you a free pass out of judgment by God. Not so. It is not hearing the Law, but doing that matters.

The appeal to the death of Gentiles who sin apart from the Law raises a question, namely, 'How can they be held accountable for a standard about which they did not know?' Paul's answer is found in verses 14 and 15. He says, in essence, that when Gentiles occasionally live by the moral norms of the Law, they demonstrate that they have an internal awareness of those norms, written on their heart, as a conscience suitable to render them accountable to God for transgressions of that Law. That this is the thrust of verses 14 and 15 is not only shown by their connection to verse 13--namely, "for" or gar at the beginning of verse 14--but also by the end of verse 14. It says basically that their conflicting thoughts--that is, their self-condemning or self-approving thoughts about their moral behavior and how it squares with God's laws--will be accusing or defending them on the Last Day.

From there he moves smoothly on into what we know as verse 16: "on a day when God judges the secrets of men, according to my gospel, through Christ Jesus." This finalizes the section of vv.1-16 and repeats the assertion that God will, in fact, judge all men at the end of history. And most astonishingly, He will conduct this judgment according to works by the agency of His Son, Jesus. And, perhaps surprisingly to us, this notion, according to Paul, accords with the gospel.

So there is a brief run-through of the section, with only the major points observed.

Many questions have been raised, but we will now deal with the most poignant and immediately relevant.

This scene of "judgment according to works," especially expressed in the language of verse 13 ("For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified"), seems at first glance to be in strong tension with other teachings of Scripture. Not only that, but it seems to be in tension with other teachings of Paul himself! And not only that; it seems to be in tension with some things Paul will teach about justification in the very next three chapters of Romans!

In chapters 3 through 5 of Romans, as we will see, Paul defends the notion of justification (that is, being declared righteous before God) by faith apart from works. And he does so not as a side note, but zealously, as one of his main points!

So what do we have here? A contradiction in God's holy, inspired Word? For the faithful, this is of course not an option.

But even for the skeptic, can we really readily admit that the apostle Paul--the highly-intelligent theologian and writer--changes his mind or forgets something within the space of a couple of chapters? Surely not.

We must look more closely at the text, therefore, and learn what exactly it is saying.

Let this be our default mode of operation when we come to difficult parts of the Scriptures! When we don't see how two verses or passages line up with each other, let us not throw up our hands and reject the inerrancy of Scripture; nor let us too quickly assign everything to indiscoverable divine mystery. To be sure, there are some things that are secrets which belong to the Lord until the Last Day or even after that. But let us not draw that line too quickly, and let us dig ever more deeply into the Word, meditating on it day and night for months and even years!--so that we can learn about the layers and deep riches of the wisdom of God that He has revealed in His inexhaustible Word.

Two basic, over-arching approaches have been taken by orthodox, evangelical interpreters with regard to this passage and its relationship to justification by faith alone. I have examined these two basic positions in detail, and have more than once over the past few years changed my mind on which one is a more accurate understanding of Paul's intentions here in this text. For this reason, even though I think I know which one is more accurate--and will give some reasons for that position--I will not be overly dogmatic about it.

Whichever position you take, it does not do final damage to the overall thrust of Paul's argument here. Also, the two teachings which are the focus of each respective position on this text are both taught not only elsewhere in the Bible, not only elsewhere in the New Testament, but even elsewhere in Paul. Therefore, no central Christian doctrine hangs on the correct interpretation of this particular passage, although I believe the correct interpretation should make more sense out of chapter 2 of Romans as a whole.

Ok, here's what I'm talking about:

When Paul talks here about the "doers of the Law" being the ones who "will be justified," and how judgment accords strictly with works and not anything else, he could be describing one of two situations:

1) A hypothetical situation where perfect obedience on the part of human beings serves as the ground or merit of justification. Or, in "covenant theology" terms, this is a perfect fulfillment of the stipulations of the covenant of works. Unfortunately, no sinful human being can manage to meet this standard, and therefore all Paul is doing in this section, as a wider part of the section 1:18-3:20 is setting the divine standard of perfect Law-keeping, so that he can demonstrate every person's inability to justify his or her self by works, and thus everyone needs the gospel in which Christ fulfills the Law on their behalf and dies for their sins. This position has been embraced and taught by John Calvin, Geerhardus Vos, John Murray, F.F. Bruce, Charles Hodge, and others.


2) A "reified," or "real" description of how the final judgment "really will" be carried out according to works, for both believers in Christ and non-believers. The obedience and Law-keeping here described, however, is not perfect, but enduring and observable. So good works are here described as necessary evidence at the last judgment of a person's identity as a faithful covenant member of God's people, united to Christ by vital faith, and dressed in Christ's perfect righteousness. This position has been embraced and taught by St. Augustine, Thomas Schreiner, John Piper, and R. C. H. Lenski, among others.

Again, both of these ideas are biblical ideas taught in the rest of the New Testament, even by Paul himself. The question is simply a matter of which idea this particular passage is meant to teach us.

Decent arguments can be made for each position, but I do lean toward the second one, and will give several reasons for that.

I want to say as a preface, though, that the single strongest argument for position 1, in my opinion, is that v.13 must be understood as a part of the broader context of 1:18-3:20, where Paul's chief burden is not to teach us how to be saved at the last judgment, but to render us hopeless with regard to the sufficiency of our own good works to commend us to God. Therefore, it may seem very strange for Paul to insert in the middle of that argument a verse or small section that views our good works as positive instruments of final vindication at the last judgment!

Nevertheless, I want to point out a few things that lead me to think that is precisely what Paul has done.

1. Though part of a larger context meant to drive us away from hope in our own good works and toward receiving Christ and His work by faith, this section has a more specific aim, namely, that of silencing the first century Law-breaking Jew who thinks they are exempt from God's judgment because of their covenantal privileges like circumcision and having the revelation of the Law on stone tablets. Therefore, even if this section is about imperfect Law-obedience as a real necessity and guarantee of final justification (which I take to mean "vindication"), it serves to silence illegitimate Jewish boasting, thus promoting the end of getting people to turn to Christ as their hope instead of themselves. This is being done after chapter 1 has put a stop to all men's excuses but especially Gentiles who before Christ did not have special revelation but nevertheless had the revelation of God's power and divinity in the created order.

2. The language Paul uses in this section sounds very far from being merely hypothetical, and actually in my opinion sounds very close to being imperfect obedience!

a. Notice Paul's use of the idea of "repentance" in verses 4 and 5. Paul accuses the Jews not of imperfection of Law-keeping but of hardness, stubbornness, and unrepentance.

b. Notice in verse 7 "according to endurance of working of good;" Endurance is often connected with ideas of overcoming obstacles, and perhaps growth. More importantly, although it is a genitive in the Greek here, we can still see that the very notion of endurance speaks of ongoing or habitual activity, not necessarily all-encompassing, never-failing activity.

c. Notice in verse 8 the idea of "not obeying the truth." It reminds us of the phrase Paul uses in 2 Thessalonians 1:8 and Peter uses in 1 Peter 4:17 "obey the gospel." It may also remind us of Paul's terminology "obedience of faith" from back in chapter 1 of Romans. It seems the contrast made in the chiasmus of verses 7-10 is not between perfect Law-keepers and sinners in general, but between the unrepentant and those who do "obey the truth" in repentance and faith in the gospel and so get a new direction for their lives of growing Law-keeping and obedience.

d. Notice that in verse 16 that this judgment is "according to [Paul's] gospel." It would surely have been more difficult for Paul to talk about a hypothetical judgment according to perfected works which is "in accord with the gospel" than it would have been to talk about a real judgment according to imperfect works serving as evidence of regeneration and covenant faithfulness (and therefore union with Christ by faith) as being "according to the gospel."

3. There is no clear signal of hypothetical thought in Paul's mind here. In fact, he repeats five times in slightly different ways the reality and certainty of this coming judgment and its impartial nature of being "according to works." Verse 2: "we know the judgment of God is according to truth upon the ones practicing such things." Verse 6: "For he will recompense each man according to his works." Verse 11: "For there is no respecting-of-persons with God." Verse 13: "For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified." Verse 16 "on a day when God will judge the secrets of men, according to my gospel, through Christ Jesus." One may wonder what else Paul may have said to "reify" this judgment scene and its nature in our minds--that is, what else could Paul have said to convince us that this is truly how things are going to go down on the Last Day?

4. Next is the strongest argument for position 2 that I am arguing for, and I think it is decisive, although proponents of the other view have their own well-thought-out responses even to this argument. If we take chapter 2 as a whole section--which we should do--we see that part of this unified section includes Paul talking about Gentiles who are physically uncircumcised being "counted" or "reckoned" as circumcised by keeping the Law! Paul goes on to talk about the nature of true Judaism as inward, and true circumcision as being that which is of the heart by the Spirit, not the flesh by the "letter." Paul is there speaking of the circumcision of the heart as a metaphor for regeneration or spiritual rebirth. For this spiritual miracle to happen to the covenant people of God as a whole was the great hope of the coming New Covenant for the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and arguably Moses in Deuteronomy 30. In the New Covenant age of the greater outpouring of the Spirit on the people of God, this great hope is realized for the people of God as a whole (although it is true that Old Covenant saints were regenerated the same way, and it is true that not all members of the visible Church of Christ today are personally regenerate). Therefore Paul is here referring not to sinless people but to Christians who really obey the Law--imperfectly--but really, and are on that basis vindicated by God at the last judgment as truly being His people. In fact, Paul says that they will judge Jews who were uncircumcised in heart and did not obey the Law in a consistently enduring or observable way, out of living faith.

5. Finally, I also just want to point out that in the very same book of Romans, Paul talks about the necessity of walking the path of sanctification if we would inherit eternal life. For example in chapter 6, verse 22, he talks about "...sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life." Also, in chapter 8, he talks about how "...the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us" (v.4) and "if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live" (v.13).

So I think the final judgment will be carried out according to works not just for unbelievers, but for all the dead, great and small. "Books" will be opened, but also a "Book." The "books" contain deeds done by men. The "Book" contains names--those who belong to the Lamb and are washed in His blood, united to Him by faith and dressed in His righteousness. And there is what we should think of as accord between the "books" and the "Book." The accord between these is that all those written in the Lamb's Book of Life will have a record of their deeds that proves that at some point in their life, they were born again by the Spirit of God, definitively sanctified and set apart for holy purpose, and endured in imperfect but perseverant faith and repentance until the end. They will thereby be seen as manifestly united with Christ by faith, and credited with His righteousness, and as having had their sins atoned for by His blood.

Let's think about some implications for this passage.

1. As short as human judgment will fall in history--as short as civil justice will fall of an ideal standard for human society, there is coming a Day when a judgment will be executed by One who is infinitely wise, omniscient, omnipotent, and just; and His judgment will be swift, thorough, visible, and 100% perfectly just and equitable.

We ought to tremble at the thought of judgment according to works but as believers in Christ we ought also take comfort in the fact that God will infallibly right all wrongs in the universe. God will pour out wrathful recompense for every ounce of the trampling of His glory, for every instance of the murder and molestation of human beings by other human beings, for every theft, for every undue denigration of another's reputation, for every form of idolatry, and for every covetous lust burning in the hearts of men. This recompense will be poured out on the ungodly who persist in unrepentance, or it has been poured out on the innocent Jesus Christ on Calvary in the place of those who repent, turn to Him in faith, and continue in His love until the end.

2. Though we as Christians do not have our final assurance in introspection, nor do we have our good works as the ground or basis of our "right standing with God," which is instead by faith apart from works, we nevertheless ought to "take care how we walk." We ought to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" and seek to make faith "work through love," making our "calling and election sure." We ought to "bear fruit in keeping with repentance" and multiply what we have been given by the Master to steward with wisdom lest He come back to find us empty-handed and unprofitable! We ought every day cling more to Christ and His promises in the gospel, and to kill more of the sin in our lives by the power of His Holy Spirit. We must persevere in faith, lest we find ourselves proven to be outside of Christ--never having truly been united to Him by living, vital faith--and without anything to show on the Last Day for the grace we have received. God's judgment accords with works.

3. Though the Bible teaches that we must demonstrate our faith's vitality through good works and obedience to the moral Law of God in order to pass muster at the last judgment, it also teaches that God--in an ultimate sense--requires perfect obedience if we would enter His presence. This we cannot do as sinners. And so we learn more about what Paul's gospel in 1:16-17 reveals about the "righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith." The gospel must address our need of an alien Law-keeping--a perfect obedience performed outside of us and for us.

Jesus Christ is His name. He was born under the Law, and obeyed it perfectly. He was crucified to atone for our sins. He was raised from the dead three days later, vindicated as the ultimate and perfect covenant-keeper and Law-obeyer, and as God's unique Son.

Whatever status you or I think we have as people who perhaps grew up in church or in a religious family, or have bloodlines linking us with past Christians or ancient Jews; or whatever degree of holiness you or I think we have attained above our neighbor who is "obviously much worse than us," let us know ourselves as needy sinners, let us know Christ as a necessary Savior--and in fact a more-than-sufficient Savior--and let us walk in Him as people who are, by grace, in the Light and not the darkness, and so prove ourselves as God's true people in His and the nations' sight at the Last Day when Christ comes again.

May God hasten the expansion of His kingdom on earth, and thereby hasten the Day of Christ. May He establish us, His people, in true holiness and righteousness. And may He, and no other, speak assurance to His people's hearts by His blessed Spirit.


Endnote: see R. C. H. Lenski's commentary on Romans for a similar translation of v. 7; see works of Moo, Dunn, Schreiner, Fitzmeyer, Byrne, and Irons for translating krith─ôsontai as "condemned." Also see The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament edited by J. D. Douglas to see other bases for literalistic word choices and order in the above translation.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Romans Series 4: He Gave Them Over, Rm 1:24ff

Romans 1:24-32 (NASB)

These are the holy, inspired Words of God through Paul the apostle, to the church at Rome.

"24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. 28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; 32 and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them."

I want to begin this week by framing this section in a few different ways in regard to wider considerations.

First, I want to frame the teaching of this section as describing in detail the general thrust of this wider section extending back to verse 18. What we have in this section is a number of repetitions about the dynamics of how God's wrath is revealed on idolatrous and unbelieving mankind because of their idolatry and suppression of the truth.

We learned that man, through idolatrous desires, suppresses the truth of God evident within him and within creation, and that this provokes God's holy and just wrath toward mankind.

The last verse of last week's section was verse 23, which stated how man exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for lesser glories of creation, by worshipping them instead of God.

Now we have a new section beginning with the word, "therefore." This "therefore" is one of result, namely, preceding the result of man having made this terribly dark and sinful exchange. I infer from this, and from the fact that the section from verse 18 to verse 23 described the cause of God's wrath, that what we have before us today is a section describing the nature of God's wrath that is here in view.

So today we will learn something about the nature of God's wrath that was mentioned in verse 18.

Secondly, and following organically out of that discussion, I want to talk about what some people would call the "fallen condition focus" of today's text. I don't usually explicitly tell you that this is what I'm describing when I'm describing it for a certain text, but I think a salient and interesting point is made by discussing it explicitly this time.

The "fallen condition focus" is a concept I learned from the teaching of Bryan Chappell, and it is based on the idea that the expositing of the Word of God is always a redemptive event. That is, whenever the Word of God is opened and explained and taught faithfully to a large group of people, there is salvation happening--both the convicting and regenerating of lost sinners, as well as the strengthening of saints within the hearing. Therefore, every text of the Word of God has power to save, and salvation is always from something. Therefore, it is profitable for the person who is explaining the Word to try and discern what particular aspect of human fallenness a biblical text most directly addresses. So I will be talking about the fallen condition focus of this text in greater detail later. For a preview, I will just say that this text uniquely connects the objective and the subjective aspects of something man needs saving from. That is, there is something outside sinful man that he needs saving from, and there is something inside man that he needs saving from.

Thirdly, I want to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ directly applies to the problems raised by this text. Having studied further the problems from which we all need saving, we will have an even deeper appreciation for what Christ has accomplished for His people on the cross.

So, I begin with the connections with the previous section and the deeper details we are given today.

The text begins, "therefore," and starts to tell us more about God's response to idolatrous and unbelieving mankind.

So what is His response?

Verse 24: "Therefore He gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them."

After restating in verse 25 the reason, or basis, or cause for this divine response, we read again in verse 26,

"For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions..."

Once again, in verse 28, "God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper"

And in the rest of the section, we are given an extensive list of sinful "things which are not proper."


What we mainly learn from this section is that one way the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against ungodliness and unbelief and idolatry is the handing over of sinners to further sin and depravity.

The implications this teaching has is vastly huge, and the questions it raises are difficult, manifold, and beyond the scope of my focus today. However, I will briefly mention a couple of things.

First, this presents to us a picture of God that may be foreign to some of us who have grown up primarily in a sentimentalistic evangelicalism that neglects the transcendent qualities of God--that neglects teaching the absolute sovereignty of God. It gives us a picture of a God who for holy, wise, and mysterious purposes, not only allows evil in the world He created as good, but judiciously hands sinners over to further sin!

We must guard ourselves on this point and affirm that

1. God is holy and perfectly good in all that He does
2. God is sovereign over all things, and no event of history lay outside the control of God
3. Human beings are held responsible for their sin and wicked rebellion; and in fact, this passage strongly emphasizes that what God does is hand over sinners to their own lusts and degrading passions. It is as if for many, God simply says, "Ok; you want as your god the lesser glories of creation? Fine...wallow in that filth to your great delight" and hands them over to do it.

As mysterious as all of this is, and as challenging as it is to some of our usual default conceptions of the biblical God, does it not resonate with what we see in the world? Do we not see so many people full to the brim with wicked desires, entrapped and ensnared apparently beyond recovery in the worldly lusts of their hearts?

We must take sin in our world seriously, and recognize it for what it is. To help us understand its current magnitude, though, we are taught in Romans 1 that it is by reason of a divine decree that many people have fallen into deeper and deeper, baser and baser, and more and more profane ultimate desires, without any to blame but themselves--including not being able to blame God the holy Creator of all men, whose judgments are just and right.

So we learn that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven partially by His handing people over to further sin. We have several other questions to answer about this.

One is glaring, and you probably wondered whether I would address it or not. I will, because Paul does, and I am going through Paul's letter.

Why does Paul focus so much on one particular sinful desire and act of man, namely, homosexuality?

The bare mention of homosexuality will bring to mind many other questions related to homosexuality and the Christian faith. I have tried to answer those in a Kindle ebook 'Gay and Christian?', the rough manuscript of which I would be glad to send to you for free if you are interested.

However, before answering at least this one question, let me say that I believe that this passage does indeed refer to homosexual desire and behavior in general, and not merely to pagan pedophilia in idol-worship as some have taught. To me the parallel mention of the two genders, as well as the terminology of "natural function" versus "unnatural function" obviously mean that Paul is referring to homosexual desire and behavior in general.

So why does Paul zoom in on this particular result of God's handing-over? One reason may be that concepts of marriage, and men's and women's roles, are the foundation of living in the image of God and being charged with the cultural mandate given in Genesis 1 and 2 to dominate the earth and reproduce. Therefore Paul is showing that God, in pouring out His wrath by handing people over to sin, hands them over even to the degree that their most basic human desires and identities are distorted by sin. Another pastor surmises that homosexuality may be God's parable--a demonstration--a dramatization of man's self-glorifying, self-worshiping idolatry. Since homosexuals are sexually attracted to the same sex, it dramatizes man's (and woman's) pre-occupation with self, and the spiritual deadness of which that idolatry consists.

In short, though, I'm not 100% sure why Paul focuses so much on homosexuality here.

One thing we can say, though, is that the apostle Paul continued the Old Testament teaching that homosexual lust and behavior is indeed sinful, and not "another option" or an "excusable natural result of genetics." Whatever the manifold possibilities of the causes of homosexual orientation--physical, nurture, personal choice, divine handing-over, homosexual lust and behavior are not options for Christian who would be faithful to God's Word, walk with Christ, and declare truth in public. It is sin, and as I will discuss more later, Christ is a more-than-capable merciful Savior in this case as well as any.

Also, I do not believe it is only homosexuals in view in verse 28. Experience of the world alone proves that, but the structure of the text also supports that. In this whole section, all the unbelieving idolaters in view have been ones who "did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer." Therefore, while it is true that all sexual sin together is in an especially serious category, or "level" of sin, homosexuals are not singled out as being the most prone to the most severe cases of what is described in verses 28 through 32.

Another question that presents itself here, and leads to the next part of the message today is, "How else is God's wrath revealed?"

We normally think of God's wrath as either the Old Testament descriptions of God's destruction of entire cities, or His hot anger burning against apostate Israel, or of the "lake of fire" and the final judgment.

But here Paul discusses human sinfulness not primarily as the cause for God's judgment--but as if it is God's judgment!

Well, it seems there are complicated things going on here. But let me answer the question as well as I can..."How is God's wrath revealed to us?"

Other than God's handing sinners over to their lusts to their greater dishonor, we see God's wrath in at least four ways:

1. Physical death of normal humans. With only a couple of biblical exceptions, every human dies. This is a part of the penalty for sin which God threatened our original parents with should they sin; and ever since they sinned, every one of their posterity--with minor exceptions--has tasted physical death.

2. The brokenness and futility of the created order is more evidence of God's wrath for human sin. See Romans 8:18-25.

3. God reveals in His Word that there will be a final judgment in which all those who are not covered by the blood of Christ will have to answer for their own sins, and the wrath of God will burn against them forever in the "lake of fire," which is indeed a symbol, but one which points to more horrible reality than itself, not less horrible--and includes physical and spiritual torment, not spiritual only.

4. Jesus Christ Himself, on the cross, drank of the full force of the wrath of God for sinners, in their place. So there, when we see the sinless Savior bearing the sins of the world, we see God's wrath revealed.

Even in this section of Romans we are reading today, we see a verse that mentions the death of men. Verse 32: "and although they knew the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death ..."

So this section about God's handing people over to their sinful lusts is not exhaustive of the wrath of God against sinners, but it is one expression of it.

This leads naturally to our second consideration, namely, the objective and subjective aspects of this text's "fallen condition focus."

There are two things people need saving from in this text. One is the objective standing of "condemned" before God in the courtroom of heaven, and the other one is the subjective, personal sinfulness of every human being who ever lived save for Christ.

As I contemplated which one was the main focus in this text, I found that they are too connected in the text to be sharply distinguished in my message.

This is because the objective, condemning wrath of God in this text is indeed the very handing of people over to further personal sinfulness!

So I will not disconnect them now. I will simply say that man needs spiritual rebirth, and spiritual growth in holiness if he would be saved! I will simply say that man also needs a removing of his natural status of "condemned" and having the "wrath of God abiding on him!" And these realities are connected.

Perhaps the best way for me to apply this truth of the connectedness of condemnation with personal rebellion in sinners is to apply the gospel. After all, in the gospel, these realities are connected as well. There is a proper order and structure to them, but they can never be utterly separated.

All of the benefits of the gospel happen in union with Christ.

That is, when we are "regenerated" or "born again" of the Spirit, it is "together with Christ" that we are "made alive" (Ephesians 2:5). When we are justified, it is union with Him by faith (Philippians 3:8-9). In progressive sanctification, it is in Him and in fellowship with Him that we are made more like Him (Philippians 3:10-14). When we are resurrected and glorified, it will be together with Him (2nd Thessalonians 1:10; 1st Corinthians 15:22).

And this gospel is just as much for the person with homosexual desires and behaviors as it is for me, for you, and for every human sinner of every kind and degree.

Through it God promises full forgiveness of sins past, present, and future because Christ has born the penalty in full. Through it God gives new life and healing to sinful hearts--and indeed bodies! This aspect is partial in this life, differs between believers, and will only be perfected in the life to come. But there is a life to come full of blessing for those who are in Christ--for they will finally be made absolutely perfect, restored to the original human image of God and beyond! No more sin, no more temptation, and at long last the full experience of the reality to which sex and marriage and all of life pointed all along: intimate, personal, perfect union with Jesus Christ our Great Savior.

So let us embrace the Bible in all its truth--in all its portrayals of God's holy and just decrees. Let us tremble at His revealed wrath in letting many sinners go their own way, becoming entangled in the enticements of the lusts of this world to their greater destruction in the end. But moreover, let us rejoice with very deep joy and with full assurance of faith in Jesus Christ and His gospel and His salvation that He has wrought for all those who will simply confess that they are indeed in need of a Savior--that they are indeed sinners who need their sentence from the heavenly Judge removed and who need their hearts cleansed, sprinkled with the blood of Christ and the water of the life-giving Spirit.

God is full of wrath and hatred for sin, but He is a God of love, and His disposition is to save sinners. All we must do is come. Just come to Him and believe. Drink of His Spirit. Be satisfied with the flesh and blood of Christ our heavenly Bread. He will forgive and He will cleanse. He will finish it all on the Last Day, yes, so let us worship our Savior and witness to the world of our Savior! Amen.