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Monday, November 18, 2013

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 4 "Salvation" Part 4

"C. Sanctification is the experience, beginning in regeneration, by which the believer is set apart to God's purposes, and is enabled to progress toward moral and spiritual maturity through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in him. Growth in grace should continue throughout the regenerate person's life."

I find this definition and description of sanctification wholly biblical as a short summary of sanctification. There are only a couple of things I wish were included more explicitly in the BF&M on this subject.

The first point I appreciate here is the recognition of the close connection with regeneration. I personally like to identify regeneration and "definitive sanctification" temporally, even though the two terms are speaking in related but different scriptural categories (spiritual life and holiness, respectively). Progressive sanctification, which is alluded to by the phrase "by which the believer...is enabled to progress toward moral and spiritual maturity" here, is a continual working out of that which was begun by the Holy Spirit in the regeneration of a person's heart. Regeneration constitutes the beginning of a person's experience of being "set apart" for the purposes of God ("sanctified").

The second point I appreciate is the dual acknowledgment of the enablement and the obligation of every believer to continue to grow in grace. While backslidings and major failures may come up even in the life of faithful believers (see Abraham, David, et al.), the New Testament paradigm is that true believers always persevere in faith and continue on an overall upward spiritual trend in their walks with God, as they grow to know Him better. The Holy Spirit infallibly conforms His people more and more to the image of Christ as they live in communion with Him. That work is incomplete in our hearts until we are with the Lord in glory (possibly hinted at in Heb. 12:23); and it is incomplete in the restoration of our physical bodies until the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day when Christ appears (1 Jn 3:2). But it has begun for all who trust in Christ. That very trust itself is the first beat of the renewed heart.

I suppose it would have been possible to include something more explicit under this heading about the responsibility believers have to work towards their further holiness, in dependence on the power of the Spirit (human effort is necessary though not self-originating in sanctification). However, in light of the fact that sometimes--I'm afraid--that that kind of discussion has attributed too much definitive causality to the human subject and thereby detracted from God the Spirit's sovereign role in progressive sanctification, and in light of the fact that the final sentence under C. here does carry some imperative weight with it as it stands, this is a minor criticism, or perhaps a mere observation. Still, I would find it helpful to at least include something about the necessity of the continual mortification of sin, a la Romans 8:13, even if that precise theological term isn't used in describing it.

The previous section on the Holy Spirit already dealt with the issue of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, pointing with biblical accuracy to the fact that every believer has been baptized in the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13), and therefore there are not distinct "tiers" of sanctification such that some Christians are awaiting a "baptism of the Spirit" that would immediately heighten their spirituality and moral ability through a mystical or ecstatic experience. However, one other thing I wish this section of the BF&M addressed is the error of Christian perfectionism. There have been those in certain quarters of the church throughout history who have maintained that believers can attain at least some kind of moral or sinless "perfection" in this life, against the clear testimony of Scripture (1 Jn 1:8; also cf. the implications of Romans 8:13 even if Romans 7 is seen as only pre-Christian experience). This kind of heresy needs to be denounced in the strongest terms in confessions and statements of faith in my opinion.

At least the BF&M has already declared the necessity of repentance for salvation by this point in the document, to guard against the opposite error (antinomianism/anti-Lordship views). Regeneration brings a radical change of heart; but the consummation of that change does not occur in this life.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Green and Gold: Principles and Priorities of Responsible Dominion

Biblical Christianity is the "Greenest" ideology and worldview there is.

What?!

Ok, Tyler's finally gone off the deep end. See? That postmillennial stuff really does lead to leftist, social gospel, earth-centered capitulation to worldly values. He's lost all sense of divine interventionism and doesn't realize how much of the Green movement is just a political power play.

Let's hold on a second.

First of all, I confess I am not an expert on the subject of Christian perspectives on ecology and environmentalism. In fact, I don't even know much at all about what's been written on the matter. I haven't read any books, or attended any conferences that address the matter in any detail. I have only had a general exposure to the secularized western culture's Green movements on the one hand, and the remnants of reactionary 20th century Christian fundamentalism's response to such movements on the other hand. And I have found, in categories of thought from historic Reformed Christianity--particularly in its more postmillennial expressions--some important principles that could mediate a way forward, and hopefully encourage more thoughtful engagement between Christians and the secular Green movements.

So here I want to share and briefly describe four very broad, over-arching principles from biblical teaching that are relevant to Christian thinking about ecology and conservation. They are as follows:

1) God's plan for the world is good

2) Human beings are good (don't freak out, fellow TULIPers; context and definitions are key)

3) God is good

4) Science is good

We will consider these one at a time, although there will inevitably be much overlap.

1) God's plan for the world is good

As I have ranted about before in many other places, in concert with others who have come to the Reformed faith (or even other alternatives to pessimistic dispensational and other forms of futurist eschatology), the West has been plagued for almost two centuries with the widespread unbiblical notion that according to New Testament prophecy, the world as we know it is going to hell in a handbasket before the Second Coming of Christ and the "future establishment" of an earthly kingdom under His rule. The Great Commission, whether it is explicitly admitted or not (and in places it has been admitted by these writers), will be a dismal failure, and Christ will have to personally return to put things to rights before there is any true and widespread renewal on earth.

Apart from the fact that this ideology has only been popularized because of the aberrant theology of John Nelson Darby and his successors in the 1800's, and the success of the Scofield Reference Bible in the early 1900's, it is unbiblical. The most responsible forms of this doctrine are not heretical in the sense of denying any of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith agreed upon in the early ecumenical creeds. Nevertheless, it is false doctrine that is poisonous to the Church's completion of its mission on earth to effectively disciple entire people groups (and that is its mission, see my blog post Commission Ambition: Teach All Nations ). Grace comes through faith, and there is no reason this should be seen as different on the large scale of the Church's mission efforts. Does Christ's bride believe that He, the king, rules the nations and is in the processing of subduing His enemies (through love and through judgment)? Does she believe He has enabled her to carry out the mission effectively and effectually?

The fact is that God's Word promises gospel victory to the Church in the world. Notwithstanding a substantial Satanic rebellion before the very end (Rev. 20:7-9), the Bible gives every reason to believe that every culture in the world will be transformed radically by the gospel in this age. The New Testament writers viewed the preaching of Jesus about the kingdom of God being at hand during His ministry as continuous with the majestic promises of the Old Testament about the Messianic kingdom--the Jewish expectation of a glorious new age of freedom and prosperity. Now, of course there is also discontinuity with general Jewish expectation: the Messiah died to win the victory, and spiritual battles are primary. Moreover, the kingdom is now a multi-ethnic priesthood rather than being identified with a single, Jewish political state. Nevertheless, Christians are not to deny that even physical blessings and political progress toward true freedom and godliness among the nations are inevitable results of the rule of the Messiah--the rule which has begun.

Some relevant Scripures to this theme of the kingdom, its nature, and its present existence by virtue of Christ's completed work:

“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." (Hab. 2:14)

"Then the sovereignty, the dominion and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him." (Dan. 7:27)

[Yahweh, to the anointed King (ultimately the Messiah)]: "Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as Your possession." (Ps. 2:8)

Acts 2:22-36 (Definitely go read this, even though I'm not posting all the text here. It explicitly describes Christ's resurrection, ascension, and session at the Father's right hand as a direct fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant--God's promise to David that one of his descendants would always sit on the throne of God's kingdom).

"For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet." (1 Cor. 15:25) This describes how Christ defeats all His enemies from heaven before His return, save for the last enemy death, which whom He will deal personally when He comes.

"He spoke another parable to them, 'The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.'" (Matt. 13:33) This shows the progressive, non-dramatic nature of the growth of the kingdom through the influence of the gospel.

We see from these and many other Scriptures that God has a kingdom, over which He rules through His Messiah and His saints--His covenant people. And the kingdom has already been definitively inaugurated by Christ's completed work on the cross and resurrection, ascension and session at the Father's right hand in heaven. All of this is directly connected to the Great Commission Jesus is recorded as giving in Matthew 28. His followers are to incorporate all the nations into this kingdom, making all peoples disciples of Jesus, living under and reflecting His rule, following all His commandments. This is the beginning of an utter restoration from the Fall of Man in Genesis 3. And now we can begin to understand, just what does any of this have to with ecology??

This kingdom inaugurated by Christ is God's program to ultimately redeem the whole world--not every individual person--but every people group, every area of human culture, and even the earth itself. This "redemption" is a redemption from not only slavery to sin, but also from the consequences of sin, including the consequences the whole human race has faced for the sins of our first parents. When Adam and Eve gave way to temptation in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3, God pronounced curses on Adam, on Eve, and on the earth itself:

"Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; and you will eat the plants of the field; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Gen. 3:17-19)

Work is inherently a good thing. But by the curse of God in response to human sin, it has been made frustrating and almost futile. Apart from God's blessing, man is perpetually faced with the impossibility of exercising effective dominion over the rest of creation. We will speak more of this later. What we must see for now is that the whole earth is affected by human sin and its consequences. When man fell, all of creation--at least all earthly creation--fell with him.

However, there is hope for creation. This is because in the same breath that God gives the curse, He also gives the first, seed-form promise of the gospel. In Gen. 3:15 God promises that there would be a descendant of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent--the devil who had deceived Eve--although His own heel would be bruised in the process. Later on, most explicitly in Gal. 3, we learn from Paul that this singular "seed," while corporately referring to the people of God gaining victory over the kingdom of Satan in the world, ultimately refers to Christ the fundamental Victor, who by His own death and resurrection definitively defeated Death and Satan. By taking the curse upon Himself (Gal. 3:13) as a perfect sacrifice, Christ rendered the curse powerless over all those who would trust in Him for salvation and be united to Him by faith.

Moreover, He exhausted the curse's power over the whole creation! He--whose resurrection interestingly occurred in a garden (Jn. 19:41)--and all those who are made new in Him are said to be partakers of the beginning of God's new creation (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). And God's new creation ultimately includes all of the cosmos (or at least all the earth), as we see vividly portrayed in Revelation 21-22. Some Christians (particularly many amillennial and premillennial believers) believe the more cosmic aspects of this new creation will not appear in any sense until the Second Coming. But much of the language in Isaiah 65 and similar passages in the prophets seems to indicate profound blessings during the Messianic age that even include physical blessings, short of the full eradication of death and sin (cf. Is. 65:20). As we will see in a later section, it makes good sense for Christians to expect progressive divine blessing on the whole created order as they progressively extend God's kingdom and apply His ordained means of godly dominion, in the completion of the Great Commission.

God's original creation was good. It fell because of sin. Yet it retains dignity as God's creation, and even has a bright future ahead as the redemption promised and effected in the gospel of Christ is progressively--and one day consummatively--applied to it. The earth is the divinely ordained context for the human worship of God, and for God to dwell with His people. This Garden-City-Temple will be a fully perfected reality when (and only when) Christ returns (cf. Rom. 8:18-24 and Rev. 21-22). Yet we as the Church press forward to that end today. And that includes consciousness of the ecological aspects of gospel prosperity. God's plan of redemption for the whole world is good.

2) Human beings are good

Or are they? Human beings, as originally created, were good in every sense. Immature and looking forward to glorification, perhaps, but good in every way. They, male and female together, imaged God perfectly (Gen. 1:26-27). But as we know, they fell. Tragic consequences ensued, one of which was the total corruption of their natures, such that every faculty they and their offspring possessed was contaminated to some degree (indeed, a severe degree) by sin. So severe is the corruption that the "natural man" is said to be unable to accept the things of the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:14) and those who are according to the "flesh" are not even able to submit to the law of God, nor can they please Him (Rom. 8:7-8). Only God can reverse this situation by His Spirit drawing people to Christ.

Yet man still images God today, although the image is distorted by sin now. For this reason, after the Flood, God instituted the state and gave it the power of the sword--the power of capital punishment, ultimately. And man as the image of God is what justifies the institution: "Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man" (Gen. 9:6, my emphasis). More than this, though, those who become united to Christ--the ultimate and now glorified man--by faith are conformed more and more to the image of Christ whose human nature images God perfectly like Adam was supposed to (Rom. 8:29). So while all human beings, even unredeemed fallen ones, retain dignity as image-bearers, Christians particularly are progressively being restored to the "goodness" and wholeness of Adam and Eve before they fell (and one day will partake of even greater life--the kind of eschatological, resurrection life Christ alone has now).

It is in these latter senses that human beings are still to be seen as "good." Human beings are magnificent creations of God, uniquely designed to bear His image, ruling with justice and goodness over the rest of creation, under Him. Therefore, more human beings is a good thing for the world (especially in light of the optimistic and biblical eschatology advocated above)! Ever since the Fall of Man, Satan has attacked this notion with his lies. God commanded Adam and Eve to fill the earth with image-bearers who could subdue and rule over it (Gen. 1:28). Yet culture after culture has found pious excuses and proud, self-righteous veneers to justify limiting or killing children. From ancient warrior cultures who in spirit worshipped Athena and therefore ruthlessly discarded weak or sickly infants; to the modern Chinese government which worships Mammon and so limits urban couples to one child; to modern American culture which worships Aphrodite and brutally sacrifices its pre-born children on the altar of sexual and reproductive "freedom," Satan has been at work all throughout history, to murderously rid the world of those who bear the image of the ultimate One he hates.

Abortion and the definition of marriage are two of the most heated political issues of our day, at least in the West, at least in America. And should we be surprised? The two most fundamental creation gifts of God--the marriage covenant between man and woman, illustrating Christ's love for the Church; and the bearing of children, illustrating God's life-giving nature and parental love for His children--are utterly necessary for the completion of the cultural mandate (the Gen. 1:28 command). Therefore, Satan strikes hard at these, and causes confusion through his lies, under the guise of the promotion of things like "equality," "love," and "freedom" (defined unbiblically, of course).

It is noteworthy, though, that apart from these two precise issues, many secularists even in America advocate things like limiting children per household (besides advocating for the continued legality of abortion), for environmental concerns of overpopulation. Pious or Satanic? We must let God speak on the matter of children: "Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward" (Ps. 127:3). "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil," (Is. 5:20a). But if things stay the way they are ecologically, isn't it obvious that we'll eventually run into serious problems when we're up to 8 or 9 billion people alive in the world?

No matter the answer to that question, as Christians we must continue to affirm human beings as the supreme creation of God, and attribute supreme created dignity to them above the animals and plants and elements, etc. This is a non-negotiable Christian distinctive. The gospel is fundamentally and centrally concerned with the salvation of human beings, rescuing them from spiritual death so that they can worship the true and living God, and in so doing, find ultimate joy in the fulfillment of their original created purpose. But we may just find, in continuing to keep the physical and spiritual welfare of human beings (which cannot finally be abstracted from their wider natural environment!) as the highest priority of the Church, missiologically, that redeemed humans--more and more of them, together--will be able to use their created and Spirit-given gifts to address with greater and greater effectiveness and innovation all the ecological concerns we have today about other species, climate change issues, and everything else necessary for the continued life and health of the earth and its inhabitants. God created human beings to take dominion over creation; therefore the more of them that exist and take up that responsibility under Him, and do it according to His commandments, the better creation will be cared for and sustained in good health. But I get ahead of myself again. For now, we must recognize that, in the aforementioned senses, human beings are good.

3) God is good

One of the other big problems with secular Green movements, ironically, is that they tend to be humanistic. That is to say that while they often view human beings negatively because of the problems human civilization causes for the rest of the natural environment, they simultaneously view themselves--or humanity, in general--as having the inherent capacity to, of its own accord and effort, reverse the negative effects of the human footprint. As in all other areas of life, they fail to take God into account. Specifically, they fail to take into account humanity's covenantal relationship to God.

Whether believers or unbelievers, all people are in covenant with God. They are either in Adam, and thus live as children of wrath, because of their sins and their identification with Adam and his sin; or they are in Christ, and by grace through faith alone, are given the forgiveness and righteousness earned on their behalf by Christ's death and resurrection. This latter covenant, called the "covenant of grace" in the Reformed tradition, speaking in systematic-theological terms, is a covenant by which God relates to His people fundamentally in terms not of their performance or execution of good works that earn His favor, but rather in terms of His own gracious promises that are received by merely trusting in the Lord.

However, the covenant of grace does not nullify, but rather establishes, Law (Rom. 3:31). That is, the grace which God gives in covenant--particularly in the New Covenant in Christ, the fully fulfilled expression of the covenant of grace--is grace which not only covers sin, but provides for escape from its enslaving power. It obligates and enables. Those who relate to God in terms of the covenant of grace are obligated to covenant fidelity; they are commanded to obey God's Law. It is not a burden any longer, but rather a privilege!

We see this vividly in the giving of the Law at Sinai after the Israelites were brought graciously out of Egypt (cf. Ex. 20). They were slaves, and then they were freed for the express purpose of sacrificing to Yahweh in another place. Yes, Sinai and the Law are sometimes spoken of negatively in the New Testament in terms of condemnation and inability; this is because 1) the Law component was very prominent under the Mosaic Covenant and no sinner can be justified by Law-keeping and 2) although gospel grace was available under Moses via ceremonial sacrifices and other types and shadows which pointed to Christ, only a remnant of Israel was ever saved before Christ (because only that remnant truly believed the promises of God which would be purchased by Christ). Nevertheless, the pattern is always divine grace proactively coming to sinners to free them to obey God--and this obedience to God's statutes and commandments is a good, healthy, and joyful thing for redeemed human beings (cf. Ps. 119).

And what did covenant fidelity result in for God's redeemed people under the Mosaic Covenant? Of course, it resulted in divine blessing on all areas of life. We must see continuity between these dynamics and the covenantal dynamics of the Church under the New Covenant. But we must guard against several errors before we look at the blessings:

1) I am not saying that we can in any sense "earn" God's favor or blessing by obedience

2) I am not saying that physical or financial prosperity is absolutely guaranteed for any individual or family or church in the gospel in this age

3) I am not saying that there is any institution today that is fully identical with the nation of Israel under the Mosaic Covenant who should expect absolutely identical divine blessings

Okay, now onward.

Once we understand that Moses and Christ, and the respective covenants they mediate, are same for substance though they differ outwardly in many ways (cf. Heb. 4:2; Rom. 10:8; Col 2:17), and once we understand that the promise of an inheritance of bountiful land has not been abrogated nor repeated word-for-word in the New Covenant but rather has been expanded to include the whole world (Rom. 4:13), and once we understand that the Church--made up of individuals who are united by faith to Christ, the true Israel(ite)--is the fulfillment and New Covenant analogue of Old Covenant Israel (cf. Gal. 3:29; 4:26; Eph. 2:11-16; 3:6; Phil. 3:3; Heb. 12:22; Rom. 2:28-29; 4:9-11), we begin to wonder why the following promises made to Israel of old wouldn't apply at least in some way to us today:

"If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments so as to carry them out, then I shall give you rains in their season, so that the land will yield its produce and the trees of the field will bear their fruit. Indeed, your threshing will last for you until grape gathering, and grape gathering will last until sowing time. You will thus eat your food to the full and live securely in your land. I shall also grant peace in the land, so that you may lie down with no one making you tremble. I shall also eliminate harmful beasts from the land, and no sword will pass through your land. But you will chase your enemies and they will fall before you by the sword; five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall before you by the sword. So I will turn toward you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will confirm My covenant with you. You will eat the old supply and clear out the old because of the new" (Lev. 26:3-10).

"Therefore, you shall keep the commandment and the statutes and the judgments which I am commanding you today, to do them. Then it shall come about, because you listen to these judgments and keep and do them, that the Lord your God will keep with you His covenant and His lovingkindness which He swore to your forefathers. He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your new wine and your oil, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock, in the land which He swore to your forefathers to give you. You shall be blessed above all peoples; there will be no male or female barren among you or among your cattle" (Deut. 7:11-14).

“Now it shall be, if you diligently obey the Lord your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth...Blessed shall be the offspring of your body and the produce of your ground and the offspring of your beasts, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock... The Lord will command the blessing upon you in your barns and in all that you put your hand to, and He will bless you in the land which the Lord your God gives you. The Lord will establish you as a holy people to Himself, as He swore to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in His ways. So all the peoples of the earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will be afraid of you. The Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the offspring of your body and in the offspring of your beast and in the produce of your ground, in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give you. The Lord will open for you His good storehouse, the heavens, to give rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hand; and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow" (Deut. 28:1, 4, 8-12).

It should not be difficult to imagine what the opposite consists in--what kinds of curses God pours out on a land when His people are disobedient and unfaithful to Him, not walking in His statutes, evidencing hearts of high-handed rebellion and ultimately, unbelief. Such curses are laid out in as much detail as, if not much greater detail than, the potential blessings, in Deuteronomy. The general point is this: in covenant with God, man's faithfulness or faithlessness has supernatural ramifications for his wider created environment--either divine blessing or cursing. The poor state of some eco-systems of the world is not due to man's activity alone, but is rather due to divine judgment and cursing (either generally, extending downward through history from the original curse in response to the Fall, or also specifically, in response to some group of people's rebellion against the Lord). After all, Romans explicitly says that God Himself purposefully subjected the whole creation to futility. But He subjected it in hope that it would one day be fully set free from corruption, and enter into the glorious freedom of the children of God, who at the Last Day will have received resurrected bodies and been completely sanctified (Rom. 8:19-23).

Some of this will carry over into the next section, but we can look at this covenantal dynamic from a couple of different angles. On the one hand, we can emphasize the fact that there are powerful, invisible, supernatural forces at work in the world, particularly, God's power (mediated through angelic beings at times, perhaps), favoring God's people when they are faithful to the covenant. This is an utterly different picture of reality than the Green secularist (often a materialist/naturalist) has in mind. On the other hand, we can understand obedience to God's Law as an ordinary "tool of dominion" (as some theologians put it), by which, because of the inherent "natural" processes of the world which God has created to always (or almost always) work a certain way, human beings can experience all kinds of blessings, ecological and otherwise.

Then again, we probably ought not make too much of this distinction, because even the "standing" and generally reliable "laws of nature" established by God are not laws He simply set up to run on their own apart from His continual application of power (as in Deism). Rather, the God of the Bible, the living and true God, is always and ever intimately involved with His creation such that He personally administers all the workings of what we often refer to as "natural processes." God personally causes every sunset. As we will see, He also uses means and secondary causes; still, as Christians, we must maintain a supernatural worldview when addressing ecology and conservation. This includes the moral, covenantal aspect of faithfulness and obedience to God's Law. God is gracious, but He is also good and just, and rules over His people with righteousness. This issues in divine responses of (at least disciplinary) cursing for disobedience, and blessing (though gracious in a sense) for covenant obedience. God, and the Law which expresses His character, and by which humans are to image His character, are good.

4) Science is good

It doesn't take a genius to see that the relationship between Christianity (and religion in general) and science has had a rocky history. And it is easy at this point to anticipate the cry of the secularists in response to what is written above: "Look! See? All the Christians have to say once again is all this theological mumbo-jumbo, and capitulation to a science-killing god-of-the-gaps who is alleged to perform 'miracles' of divine 'blessing' and 'cursing' and this is supposed to be the suggested solution to all our environmental problems. All they can say is, 'God has to fix it.' Useless!"

This response would be profoundly wrong, on two accounts. First of all, none of what is said above is useless in any sense at all if the Christian claim is true. And the Christian claim, at least from the Reformed view of epistemology, is that only a biblical worldview can make facts, meaning, and our experiences of reality intelligible at all. Demonstrating this is for another time (many times, that is). But if Christianity is true, and there is a sovereign God who made men and women in His image for the express purpose of exercising a representative dominion over the rest of creation, by way of covenant, then all we have said above stands as true and critically important. Nevertheless, more can be said.

The secularist response would also be wrong on this account: the supernatural character of the Christian worldview does not do away with science and human innovation/exploration at all, but rather establishes them! Far from being a mere "god-of-the-gaps," the Christian God is a sovereign God who, though ultimately mysterious in His ways and who is free and powerful enough to work without, above, and even against ordinary means of providence (see the Westminster Confession of Faith Ch. 5 Sec. III), normally does make use of means, and promises explicitly in His Word significant continuity and order in nature (cf. Gen. 8:22; 9:8-17; Ps. 104:19; 2 Pet. 3:4). For this reason, because Christians believe in this God who upholds all things by the word of His power (Heb. 1:3), and keeps creation in order according to certain causes and effects He Himself established in order to bless His creatures (rather than the universe being one of mere chaotic matter and energy with no organizing principle or force), Christians have an adequate presuppositional basis for not only confidence in scientific discovery and technological advancement, but also for the moral imperative of such endeavors (especially in light of Gen. 1:26 and the notion of general revelation as expressed by Paul in Romans 1 and the Psalmist in Psalm 19, etc.). Because God doesn't just "zap" things into being one way or another, but rather makes use of a potentially huge number of levels of means, human beings have indefinite work to do in discovering the natures of those means and the processes in which they engage. These discoveries aid knowledgeable and responsible human dominion over the rest of creation.

This would of course include the sciences of ecology and environmental conservation. Of course, for now, these fields are dominated by secular evolutionists. But Christian scientists with a biblical worldview have every reason to become more involved in these fields, recognizing that part of godly dominion over the rest of creation includes thinking very deeply about how certain aspects of human civilization and technology--as it now exists--affect the wider natural environment, positively or negatively. Christians of all people, as stewards of God's good creation, and as His would-be vice-regents over it, ought to seek continual improvements in understanding of eco-systems on small and large scales, innovations in technology that does not harm the wider natural environment (one thinks particularly of energy issues), and less politically-reactionary engagement with difficult questions of human contribution to climate change.

Science from a Christian perspective is the study of creation and the normal processes which its constituent parts undergo. In order to take dominion over creation more fully (in the positive sense of stewardship and development, not in any negative, "domineering" or destructive sense), Christians must engage in science. From this angle, science is a biblical necessity. In any case, we must see science, including ecology and environmental concerns (kept in perspective with all the qualifications listed above), as fundamentally good.

To sum up my humble attempt to outline some Christian categories of thought, from a Reformed and postmillennial perspective, related to ecology: God is good, His creation (including human beings) is good, His redemptive plan for creation is good, and biblical Law and science as means by which human beings can apply gospel redemption and dominion to all of the earth are good. Much more must be said, by way of clarification, application, and (probably) also correction. One area that definitely needs further exploration, though (and I'm sure some theologians have written about this elsewhere), is the idea of contemporary Sabbath rest for the land. Old Covenant Israel was commanded to rest from work (including working the land) one day per week, the land was given rest for a full year once every seven years, and an additional "Jubilee" year came once every 50 years (besides other Feast Days that also functioned as special Sabbaths). This was partially to give rest to the people, but it was also to give rest to the land, particularly in the case of the Sabbatic year every seven years (cf. Lev. 25:4). Surely there is wisdom here for our greedy, fast-paced Western business culture.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 4 "Salvation" Part 3

"B. Justification is God's gracious and full acquittal upon principles of His righteousness of all sinners who repent and believe in Christ. Justification brings the believer unto a relationship of peace and favor with God."

This is good as far as it goes, but Scripturally, more must be said about justification. Justification in union with Jesus--Jesus as the Messiah vindicated by His resurrection, ascension, the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, and even the judgment of Jerusalem in AD 70--is more than mere clemency or even "acquittal" in the heavenly courtroom.

If we understand Romans 5:12-21 and parallel texts like 1 Cor. 15:45-49 and 2 Cor. 5:21 correctly, we understand that just as humanity inherited the guilt of Adam because of his original sin and their identification with him by virtue of being fallen humans, Christians are clothed--imputed--with the positive righteousness and obedience of Jesus the Last Adam.

There is a big difference between affirming mere forgiveness of sins of commission such that believers go from -10 to an eternal, neutral 0 (plus, perhaps, some Spirit-wrought and "justified" good works of their own) and affirming the fullness of justification such that believers' spiritual "rap sheets" go from -10 to 10 in the heavenly courtroom.

Unfortunately, the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's "active obedience" to believers has come upon hard times of late, with the influence of many "New Perspective on Paul" writers, as well as those of the "New Finnish school" of interpretation of Luther (akin to Eastern views of theosis), and others not associated with either of those movements who nevertheless are somewhat hostile to the traditional Reformation view of justification for one reason or another.

The answer to these objectors lies not only in a careful exegesis of the aforementioned texts, not only in demonstrations that they are at the end of the day just as reductionistic as their caricatures of Reformed thinking try and show it to be, and not only in a robust biblical theology and typology of Christ as the true Israel, faithful Israelite, and ultimate man; but also in a deeper understanding of the necessary nature of the forgiveness of sins.

Some "anti-imputationists" point to Romans 4:6-8 to try and show that in Paul's mind, justification is simply synonymous with the forgiveness of sins without any reference to the imputation of a positive righteousness at all, since Paul quotes David's discussion of his experience of being forgiven as an example of justification by faith. What they fail to see, however, is that Paul can quote a bare discussion of the forgiveness of sins as an example of full justification precisely because a full understanding of "forgiveness" of sins would include forgiveness of sins of omission; and what does the forgiveness of sins of omission amount to if not imputation of positive obedience (and whose but Christ's could be imputed)?

Moreover, Piper is correct in his writings to point out that in the commercial metaphor of Rom. 4:4-5, the thing credited to the believer's/worker's account comes from somewhere external to them. It will not do to simply view the faith itself as what is credited as righteousness apart from Christ's obedience, although Paul speaks in this way as theological shorthand at times (cf. the last phrase of v.4). All of this must be understood within the context of Paul's theology of union with Christ, as that is spelled out more explicitly in Romans 5 and 6 and elsewhere.

God not only makes prohibitions, but also gives us positive commands, failure of which to obey constitutes sin. Interestingly, just about every positive command of Scripture is supplemented by negative forms of the same divine standard elsewhere in Scripture, and vice versa. "Love your neighbor" is one of the most supreme and comprehensive commandments, an obvious example of the negative form of which would be "You shall not murder." Likewise, "Keep the Sabbath holy" is parallel with "You shall not do any work [on the Sabbath], etc. (and these appear together frequently in the same exact text)! One may even go as far as to say every sin is both a sin of omission as well as a sin of comission, because of this dynamic. Therefore, what could forgiveness of every sin of commission be but also the forgiveness of every sin of omission--and again, what would forgiveness of sins of omission be but the crediting of a person with doing what God had commanded in each of those instances? Is this not imputation of active obedience? Is Christ not the only perfectly obedient man, faith-union with Whom is the only hope for true justification?

It would be possible to approach this whole discussion from a related, but slightly different, angle. Romans 4:25 has been under-interpreted by preachers for ages, and the resurrection of Christ for our justification is pregnant with meaning beyond "a stamp of God's approval of the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice," taking us into realms of federal representation and inaugurated eschatology. Suffice it for now to say that the implications of Christ's resurrection, and even His ascension and intercession (cf. Rom. 8:33-34), for the achievement and (infallible) maintenance of our (punctiliar and everlasting) justification, go far beyond "acquittal."

Nevertheless, I'm thankful for an orthodox--if brief and incomplete--exposition of justification in the BF&M. distinguish them as two different events.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 4 "Salvation" Part 2

"A. Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God's grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.

Repentance is a genuine turning from sin toward God. Faith is the acceptance of Jesus Christ and commitment of the entire personality to Him as Lord and Saviour."

Amen. But now to the scruples, as usual. The second sentence seems to avoid deciding (clearly, at least) between the temporal or "logical" order of regeneration, which, given the goal of the SBC as a whole to neither officially adopt nor anathematize Reformed soteriology, is commendable (however commendable or not such a goal is in the first place...I think at this stage of the SBC's history it probably is commendable). It does seem like it could be read, however, to be saying that man's response of repentance and faith is a prerequisite to the full experience of regeneration. After all, the first sentence says that regeneration is "a work of God's grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ" (a bit ambiguous, but possibly suggesting that there is such a thing as a believer in Christ who is for a split second or two not regenerated).

Moreover, it is unclear whether that to which a believer is said to respond in the second sentence is the regeneration, or the conviction of sin--the person thereby acting as a cooperative agent of regeneration. Scripture, however, seems to attribute full causality of regeneration to the Holy Spirit, with man's faith and repentance as the mere responses and effects of the initial "regeneration" of the rebirth. One could argue that "the regeneration," broadly conceived as the renewal of all things (the primary use of the word in Scripture) includes all of sanctification, and therefore would include the faith and repentance of believers. But the new birth is what is obviously primarily in view here.

1st John 5:1 says that everyone who believes (present, ongoing) that Jesus is the Christ (literally) has been born of God. The instant a person has the kind of faith in Jesus that is vital and persevering, it is true of them that they have been regenerated; they are not "almost" regenerated or half-regenerated the instant they first believe. Compare the syntax of 1 Jn. 4:7 (certainly our love does not cause the new birth), and that of 1st Jn. 2:29 (certainly our practicing righteousness does not cause our rebirth!)

In Ephesians 2 it is God alone who has "made us alive together with Christ" when we were "dead" in our trespasses and sins.

Additionally, two of the most dominant Old Testament metaphors for regeneration are the replacing of hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, and circumcision of the heart. And a heart of stone cannot take itself out--even halfway through the process--and replace itself with a heart of flesh, nor can an uncircumcised heart circumcise itself or even help "complete" the process. Yes, the Israelites are also commanded to circumcise their hearts; but their history recorded in the OT shows the impossibility of them doing this themselves.

For these reasons and more, I personally believe that regeneration as taught in the NT is fully and unilaterally causal and creative of repentance and faith, and that saving faith begins immediately upon regeneration as a result of regeneration. As for the BF&M, as I said, it doesn't appear that the drafters wanted to clearly express either a monergistic or a synergistic view of regeneration here. I only worry that synergism may be seen as implied, given a certain way of reading the paragraph.

Finally, I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with the language included here in the definition of saving faith, "commitment of the entire personality to Him as Lord and Savior." I'm not contradicting myself and turning to any anti-Lordship/"free grace" perspective. Here's all I'm trying to say: this language is actually better used to clarify and flesh out repentance, and is acceptable only so long as the reader realizes we are not speaking here of perfect repentance or commitment on the part of a brand new Christian (or any living Christian prior to the consummation).

Of course genuine repentance and saving faith are inseparable and are "two sides of one coin," as I've said before. But the dominant pictures of faith in Scripture are pictures of receiving, and of restful hope and assurance. In John 6, faith is eating Jesus' body which is the bread of life and drinking His blood. In John 4, it's quenching thirst with the water of life only He can give. So it's joyful satisfaction in Christ as He is received, like nourishing food. And in Hebrews, faith is the assurance of things hoped for and a conviction of things not seen (ch. 11), as well as a resting from one's own works, in a certain sense (ch. 4).

So systematically, yes, yes, genuine saving faith and repentance involve committing one's whole self to Christ (if imperfectly). But speaking in scriptural language, the emphasis of "faith" itself is receiving Christ and the benefits of His saving work, not giving something to Him. And yes, that includes receiving Christ Himself as Lord, which has huge implications for repentance and a life committed to obedience, etc.

Overall, this portion of the BF&M is a half-decent short explanation of regeneration as an act of God's re-creative grace. The possible hints at synergism are my main concern.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Messianic Fulfillment and Law in Matthew 5

The passage of Matthew 5:17-20 and the following "antitheses" is one of the most controversial and exegetically involved passages in Matthew, and perhaps any of the four gospel accounts. It is also one of the most important for establishing one's view of covenantal continuity and discontinuity, especially as it applies to Christian ethics--what OT laws, if any, are to be followed by Christians today, and why. These very kinds of topics are among the first I began to study seriously in Scripture (perhaps even before I was wrestling deeply with leaving Roman Catholicism), and continue to be some of my favorite things to study and talk about. I even find myself right now in the middle of a written debate (in other Facebook notes) on the nature and timing of the beginning of the "body of Christ" in Scripture.

There is no way I'm going to come on here and claim I can give a full, convincing exegesis of vv.17-48 and settle all the issues once for all as if I were some quasi-omniscient theologian or even had the Greek chops to potentially do it (or...even...had a full grasp of all the most basic fundamentals of Greek at all). My goal is to simply bring together a couple of ideas about this passage from different interpretive schools that tend not to get along well, and briefly discuss one or two others at a couple points. I'm not a "let's-sing-Kumbayah" relativist or pluralist type who thinks each one is fully right, or that they should just all be combined for the sake of some arbitrary kind of "balance" or "middle-ground." Rather, I will be slightly re-interpreting their own conclusions, seeking to bring out the truthful aspect of each, discarding the rest, and then will be able to bring them together and show their compatibility.

Now that I've completely oversold myself with my characteristically lofty prolegomena, let's get to the text and some discussion of it so I can disappoint you, yet hopefully, offer some initial thoughts that could lead some of you (seminarians especially) to following some potentially interesting trajectories of insight into the NT teaching on Christ, fulfillment, covenants, and law.

The Passage and Major Interpretive Issues

Matthew 5:17-20 reads,

"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."

This introduction is followed by the six "antitheses" each begun by Jesus' formulaic refrain "You have heard that it was said..." or slight variations of that language. The passage raises dozens of important theological questions. Among these: 1) What does Jesus mean by not having come to "abolish the Law or the Prophets?" 2) What does "fulfill" mean here? 3) What do "until heaven and earth pass away" and "until all is accomplished" mean? 4) What does the "kingdom of heaven" refer to here? 5) What does it mean to surpass the scribes and Pharisees in righteousness? 6) What does "these commandments" refer to in v. 19? and one of the biggest over-arching questions...7) Do Jesus' antitheses constitute a change of moral standards from the Law under Moses to a new ethical code for the people of the New Covenant/kingdom of heaven (a distinct "law of Christ"), or do they constitute a correction of Pharisaical distortions toward a true fulfillment of the moral intent of the Law for the Christian life?

Moving forward, it will be useful to abbreviate some relevant theological positions and items. Henceforth,

CCT = Classical Covenant Theology (as seen in most traditional Reformed circles; results in advocating strong continuity of moral law)
TCT = Theonomic Covenant Theology (CCT plus advocacy of strong continuity of Mosaic civil law)
NCT = New Covenant Theology (results in emphasizing discontinuity of ethical norms from Moses to New Covenant but sees unity of purpose and people of God)
DT = Dispensational Theology (emphasizes discontinuities and maintains strong distinction even between the Church and Israel and their respective redemptive programs)
HP = Hyperpreterism (unorthodox belief that all biblical prophecy whatsoever was fulfilled at or by AD 70)
OP = Orthodox Preterism (belief that many but not all New Testament prophecies were fulfilled by AD 70
MC = Mosaic Covenant (also frequently referred to in the NT simply as "the Law")
NC = New Covenant

NCT

NCT is a relatively recent development, although various parts of its system reflect ideas that remind the reader of DT or CCT, depending on which particular aspect is in view. Its advocates see it as a potential middle-road or "third way" between traditional DT and CCT. The approach of NCT to the antitheses in Matthew 5 is generally to say that Jesus is, in fact, changing the moral standards of the Law. The imminent completion of Christ's work and the outpouring of the Spirit inaugurating the NC would mean that the people of God could be appropriately held to an even higher standard of love and righteousness that would surpass that expected under the MC. NCT advocates criticize CCTers for trying to divide up the MC Law into artificial categories of moral, civil, and ceremonial, and trying to say that only the ceremonial and perhaps civil aspects passed away with the coming of the NC. Rather, NCTers say, the MC as a whole--and its laws with it--passed away and the old law was replaced with the "law of Christ." After all, they reason, Hebrews explicitly says that where there is a change in priesthood, there is necessarily a change of law (Heb. 7:12). Also cited as evidence is the fact that Jesus quotes Scripture itself right before giving each authoritative antithesis.

In conjunction with their general view of the discontinuity of ethical standards described in this passage, then, NCTers read the introduction to the antitheses of vv.17-20 as saying that Christ came not to abolish the Law or Prophets, but to eschatologically fulfill them. They make much out of saying that plēroō (the word for "fulfill" here) means, almost every single other time in Matthew, something like "eschatologically fulfill" (when Matthew quotes the OT as a prophetic explanation of some event of Jesus' life, for example). Not only did Christ fulfill the Law by obeying it and dying under the curse of it for His people, but His moral teaching also fulfills the moral teaching of the MC. NCT is not monolithic, so various proponents would nuance things differently from each other, but at least some NCTers would say that the moral teaching of the OT actually itself pointed forward to a greater and higher moral teaching--the moral teaching of Christ in the NC which would eschatologically fulfill the old Law by replacing it. Of course there are strands of continuity still--one still may not steal in the NC--but the emphasis is unmistakably discontinuity, at least when interpreting this passage. Additionally, some NCTers will say that Christ, in fact, did come to abolish the Law in the way discussed in this passage, and that His statement in v.17 is only intended as a relative negation, so that He should be read as saying "I did not so much come to abolish as to fulfill, although I did also come to abolish." While there is an element of truth to the NCT perspective on Matthew 5, this latter idea is highly problematic, as we will see below.

CCT

In contrast, CCT and most closely-related systems, even among confessionally Reformed Baptists, have asserted that Matthew 5:17-48 emphasizes continuity rather than discontinuity, especially regarding moral law. CCTers generally assert that the antitheses constitute not a Messianic change in moral standards from covenant to covenant, but rather constitute a Messianic correction of the abuses and distortions of the Pharisees and scribes--their extrabiblical traditions and twisted applications of the Law. While it is true that Jesus quotes Scripture before giving each of the antitheses, it is also true that Jesus begins each of His antithetical comments not by the common Matthean formula "it is written" (referring authoritatively to Scripture and affirming its teaching on its own terms) but rather "you have heard that it was said," or "you have heard that the ancients were told," pointing to a Messianic conflict with oral rabbinic traditions and applications rather than with Scripture itself. Furthermore, the content of the antitheses itself points in the direction of correction of Pharisaical distortion rather than discontinuity with the true moral law. Without going into detail, two lines of argument here would be 1) the standards Jesus commands to be followed here, such as abstinence from even heart-lust (not just acted-out adultery) can be found already taught in the Old Testament as the true and full meaning of the Law (although proving this may take some slightly more complicated exegetical work in a couple of the cases such as the antithesis about oaths), and 2) there are strong echoes of detailed rabbinic debates and traditions about Jewish law lurking in the background of the antitheses, to which we see Jesus responding with great frustration at many other places in the gospels.

Another, even more foundational line of evidence for the CCT view of moral continuity is Jesus' emphasis on continuity in the introductory material of 17-20. Contra some of the more extreme NCT and DT interpreters, v.17 cannot be read as a merely relative negation. The surrounding context prohibits it. Specifically, Vv. 13-16 earlier in the chapter elevate the importance of good works of Jesus' disciples, and of them being seen by the world to the end that the Father is glorified (v. 16); and then after Jesus' negation in v. 17, He goes on in vv. 18-19 to teach moral continuity in the strongest possible terms!: "For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." And as if Jesus hadn't been emphatic enough already, He concludes the introduction to the antitheses with the charge of keeping the Law better than the scribes and Pharisees, on pain of failing to enter the kingdom of heaven at all (v. 20) (and while it could be argued that this wouldn't be all that difficult since the scribes and Pharisees did not truly keep the heart of the Law but rather manifested merely external obedience and adherence to often contra-biblical rabbinic traditions, the point remains that Jesus' charge is to be Torah-observant better than these, not to be non-Torah-observant). Continuity is the emphasis.

HP

We need to say more about the introductory verses, though, because in recent years, interpreters from a HP perspective, and possibly others, have attempted to interpret v. 18 in very strange ways. For example, HPers like to assert that Jesus is simply teaching that all of Torah, including the ceremonial law, is to be observed "until all is accomplished" and "until heaven and earth pass away," reading these as referring to either Jesus' death (cf. with "It is finished" in Jn. 19:30), or the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, or both. Once the MC passes away theologically at the cross, and the "heaven and earth" of OT Israel passes away historically in AD 70 as a national covenant entity in covenant with God (with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple), there is no longer Torah observance in any sense at all for HPers. Ironically, some DTers and NCTers--no friends of HP--have followed similar lines of thought with regard to the Torah part of this argument, even if they disagree with the "heaven and earth" passing away in AD 70 idea.

In response, I would say that while there is an element of truth to the idea of the MC passing away theologically at the cross (such that the ceremonial laws in their original form, as well as the MC as a covenant, passed away, as in Eph. 2:15-16), and from an OP perspective, there is some truth in the idea of OT Israel being capitally punished as the unfaithful bride of God in AD 70, the overall HP view of this passage is defective. We must insist again that Jesus' negation in v. 17 is not relative, as the surrounding context demonstrates. We must also notice that it is not only the "Law" which is not abolished, but neither are the Prophets. And for most HPers, while all OT and NT prophecies are viewed as definitively fulfilled by AD 70, there is still infinite, ongoing fulfillment of some kind as more people are born and more and more of them are joined to Christ in a very ethereal, spiritual understanding of His NC. Therefore even for them, it can never really be said that the Prophets are abolished, even if they find a way to say that the MC is totally abolished in every sense. But if you have the Prophets fulfilled rather than abolished, you must also have the Law fulfilled and not abolished according to this passage. This is because the comments in v. 18 about the smallest strokes not "passing from the Law" (being abolished?!) cannot be abstracted from Jesus' negation about the abolishment of the "Law or the Prophets" in the preceding verse.

Moreover, can it truly be said that Jesus' advocacy of "righteousness" in a rather general and comprehensive-sounding way (vv. 16, 20) should be understood as unrelated or irrelevant to post-AD 70 Christian living? Obviously not, yet in this passage, "righteousness" in general is bound up explicitly with Torah observance. Of course the way in which many things in the Law are observed in the NC is different than when the Law covenant as such was in effect. But the point of the continuity of moral norms seems to stand. Unless we want to say that our righteousness should not still surpass the scribes and Pharisees in the eschaton--whatever the "eschaton" precisely means in one's theology--we cannot understand "until heaven and earth pass away" as any kind of specific eschatological reference at all. Jesus seems to simply be using the phrase as a rhetorical device for strong emphasis here (although He may not always do so; but compare Lk. 16:17 as a clear example of a rhetorical use with Matt. 24:35-36 as an arguable example of a more literal use [and yes, I take and think I can defend the topical transition view of Matt. 24]).

So far, we have discussed views of Matt. 5:17-48 which assert: 1) NCT: "fulfill" means "eschatologically fulfill such that there is significant discontinuity of moral norms between the MC and the NC;" 2) HP: not necessarily mutually exclusive with aspects of '1', the Law actually is abolished and all things accomplished by the cross/AD 70 such that there is no sense of Torah observance for Christians today whatsoever; 3) CCT: Jesus' "fulfillment" of the Law and Prophets, whatever it involves, does not result in a change of moral law from MC to NC; rather, the antitheses simply constitute a Messianic correction of Pharisaical distortion of the Law, traditional rabbinic legalism, and the like.

TCT

'3' in the preceding paragraph seems lacking so far, though. This is because we have mostly only talked about it in negative terms up to this point--there is not a change of moral law. But what does the "fulfillment" mean, positively? We can turn to one of the most vocal advocates of TCT from the 20th century for one possible answer. And actually, we have already stated it. Greg Bahnsen, a Reconstructionist, theonomist, and vocal Reformed apologist of the 20th century, interpreted plēroō in Matt. 5:17 not as "eschatologically fulfill" but rather as "confirm." In his writings advocating theonomy (belief that even the principles of the civil codes under the MC should apply to the state today), he argues extensively that the context of the passage--which he, as a TCT subset of CCTers, sees as correction of Pharisaical distortions--demonstrates that the primary if not exclusive meaning of "fulfill" at least in this passage has to do with "confirming" the moral norms of the MC as continuing, valid, and authoritative for NC Christians.

In response to critics who point out that no lexicon or NT Greek dictionary points out "confirm" as a primary or even slightly common meaning of plēroō, Bahnsen defends himself by explaining that his definition is a precising definition, not meant to deny the legitimate, more general definition of "to fill up," "to render full," "to carry into effect," "to bring to realization," etc., but rather to specify a more narrow sense in which Jesus is recorded as using the term.

What shall we say about Bahnsen's view? The traditional CCT view contains nothing which would conflict with an understanding of plēroō as "confirm;" indeed, "confirm" does fit well with the traditional view of the antitheses which sees them as correction of Pharisaical distortions. However, while Bahnsen's "precising" definition and exegesis was perhaps effective as a programmatic, polemical response to neo-antinomians against whom he was arguing in his historical context, is "confirmation of moral norms" really all Jesus meant by fulfilling the Prophets? It seems extremely reductionistic, if one valid aspect of NC fulfillment.

Synthesis

If the entire OT spoke of Jesus and His coming Messianic mission (Lk. 24:44, et al), what it means that Jesus "fulfills" the Law and Prophets is necessarily extremely multi-faceted, even if a single passage of the NT doesn't spell out every detail. It would take time and space, but not great effort, to show, for example, that Jesus fulfills the Law and Prophets by: 1) Obeying the Law as the Last Adam on behalf of His covenant people, as the finally faithful and true human "son of God" and "Israelite;" 2) Suffering the curse and penal sanctions of the Law as a vicarious sacrifice for His covenant people, fulfilling all that the MC sacrificial system pointed forward to, and hence in a sense abolishing the ceremonial parts of the Law (this is an aspect of truth found also in DT and HP systems); 3) Acting as the ultimate High Priest of His people not only in His self-sacrifice but also in His constant intercession at the Father's right hand; 4) Acting as the ultimate Davidic King over the whole world, subject only to the Father; 5) Acting as the eschatological Prophet and indeed embodying the ultimate prophetic "Word" of God (Heb. 1:1-2)--which role would be the best to see as related to Bahnsen's idea of fulfillment as "confirming/correcting distortions of the Law;" 6) Becoming a light to the Gentiles such that the nations, as a whole, would come to join the covenant people of God through faith in the Messiah, worship and be taught of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and adopt the OT Scriptures as their own; and most relevant for the conclusion of this article, 7) Bringing about the NC reality of faithful, heartfelt Law-observance in the covenant people!

This last aspect of Messianic fulfillment is most evident in the only OT passage that explicitly uses the terminology of "new covenant," namely, Jeremiah 31. In vv. 31-33, we read, "'Behold, days are coming,' declares the LORD, 'when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,' declares the LORD. 'But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,' declares the LORD, 'I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.'" The NC was purchased by Jesus' blood (Lk. 22:20), was already a present reality in the first century according to the author of Hebrews (Heb. 8; although there is greater fulfillment of it still to come in the eschatological conversion of the majority of ethnic Jews to Christ [Rom. 11]), and it benefits Gentiles as well as Jews (see Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, writing in the first person in 2 Cor. 3:6). And one of the central blessings of the NC, according to Jer. 31 and related passages like Jer. 32:38-40 and Ez. 36:26-27, is the reversal of the general situation of unfaithfulness under the MC: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit such that the covenant people as a whole (rather than a mere, small remnant of the visible covenant community) are finally faithful to God's Law. What divine law-norms are in view here, exactly? Obviously, it is the only Law the readers of Jer. 31 would have been familiar with--the moral norms of the MC. They are not abolished under the NC but rather realized and finally faithfully obeyed by the covenant people! Indeed, there is a sense in which even the ceremonial and sacrificial laws are observed by Christians today in a spiritual sense (cf. the language of Rom. 12:1). Moreover, even non-theonomists must articulate some kind of contemporary application of the Mosaic civil code, even if only for the institution of the church (cf. 1 Cor. 9:9 and 1 Tim. 5:18)!

Conclusions

1) "To eschatologically fulfill" is an excellent and strongly Matthean, if broad, interpretation of plēroō in Matt. 5:17. It needs unpacking, and the NCT way of doing so needs biblical correction, but the definition itself is an accurate and necessarily broad summary. 2) "To confirm" is a legitimate and included idea, but by itself is reductionistic and too narrow, even for the particular concerns of the passage. 3) It is true that the MC is abolished by Christ's death insofar as the old covenant as such and the sacrificial law and ceremonial holiness code do not apply to NC believers in the same way they did to OT believers. 4) In the sense intended by Jesus in the passage, however, neither the Law nor the Prophets are ever abolished, but rather eschatologically fulfilled in Jesus' person and work as the Messiah. 5) One meaning and result of this "eschatological fulfillment," particularly of the Prophets, is not a covenantal change of moral norms, but rather the NC people's observance of them.

"Walking according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:4) rather than living by the "letters" of the Law "engraved on stones" (2 Cor. 3:6-8) refers to NC Spirit-empowered obedience to the moral norms of the Law without the ceremonial and animal-sacrifice trappings of the MC; it does not refer to NC lawlessness or some alleged radical change of moral norms for NC believers. In fact, Romans 8:4 mentions the "requirement of the Law...fulfilled (plēroō!) in us, who...walk...according to the Spirit." Paul generally uses plēroō differently from Matthew, admittedly, but the strongly redemptive-historical semantics of Romans 7 and 8 may legitimize a linguistic connection here nevertheless.

Of course there is some discontinuity even in the Reformed CCT position, and even in CCTers' contemporary application of moral norms, as evidenced by the first-day observance of the Sabbath rather than seventh-day observance (because of the resurrection of Christ as the beginning of New Creation, etc.). But the strong emphasis of Matt. 5:17-48 and its Messianic-prophetic background with regard to Law-observance, is definitely continuity, and there's nothing non-eschatological about that. It is, in fact, fundamentally eschatological, fulfilling the Prophets' expectation of a faithful and obedient covenant people in the "last days" of the Messiah/inauguration of the NC.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Ecclesiology Debate: Opening Statement 2 (Beau)

Opening Statement -- Positive (Beau's opening statement)

My pastor likes to begin debates by establishing common ground. In the short time Ive had the priviledge of knowing Tyler, I know we both have a strong commitment to the Lord and a passion for His word. Despite disagreeing on doctrinal issues I'm confident the two of us seek to edify each other and those reading.

"Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures; He was buried, and He rose again the third day, according to the scriptures." (1Cor. 15: 3-4)

Paul's message, above, to the Corinthians, was the new salvation message, for those in the Body of Christ. "Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, 2 by which also you are saved..." (1 Cor.15: 1,2) Peter's message in early Acts, was "repent and be baptized (water) for the remission of sins. That was a message for Israel. The body of Christ is so divided on just that issue. Baptism. Dunk or sprinkle? Infant or adult? Is water baptism necessary for salvation or simply a testimony of your faith? Paul was baptized, and he baptized some. But, it was never a part of his "salvation message..."For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel..." And, not the gospel of the circumcision.

I am a "Mid-Acts" dispensationalist. My disagreement with "Acts 2 believers" is not to question their salvation. However, doctrinal differences cause confusion, and the ears of the "mission field" hear a mixture of messages. Are believers "sealed onto the day of redemption?" Or is their salvation in jeopardy, daily? What about works? Which epistle are we to follow? The one written by James: "..by works a man is justified, and not by faith, only". Or, the one written by Paul: "..a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faithfullness of Jesus Christ." By the faithfulness of Jesus Christ - WOW!

How many Christians believe they must "do something" to earn salvation? Must believers confess their sins? Or, are our sins buried out of God's sight? Have you ever lost a friend, for not keeping the Sabbath? Remember when Peter said, "sell all your possessions, to use for the common good"? Or, was that Karl Marx? Confusion, on Biblical truths, leads to many dire consequences. William Jennings Bryant, Christian lawyer during the Scopes Monkey trial was twisted into knots by Clarance Darrow over the age of the universe. Because he (Bryant) didn't believe in the literal 6-day creation. As teachers, we need to be good Bereans.

When Paul says "rightly divide" does that mean something? Throughout the Old Testament, before this present dispensation of grace began, to enter into relationship with God, Gentiles had to become part of Israel's covenant of circumcision (proselytize). Gen.26:4; Gen.28:14; Is.2:1-4; Is.27:13; Micah 4:1-3; Zech.8:20-23; Zech.14:16 and others make it clear that Gentiles would never be acceptable to God without first blessing the nation of Israel. Prophecy in Old Testament scriptures never predicted that Christ would die for the sins of Uncircumcised Gentiles, and certainly never indicated they would be saved through Israel's fall. But that is exactly what the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write. "I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles."(Romans 11:11) Now in the Body of Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile.

Most of today's Christians lay claim to Israel's covenants. They're quick to say, "Our circumcision is of the heart." However, the Books of Ezekiel and Isaiah, inspired by the Holy Spirit, are in conflict with that theology. Because Ezekiel wrote this, when describing the future temple:"Thus saith the Lord God; no stranger. uncircumsised in heart, nor uncircumcised in flesh, shall enter into My sanctuary, of any stranger that is among the children of Israel." (44:9) Isaiah wrote, Awake, awake! Put on your strength, O Zion; Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city! For the uncircumcised and the unclean Shall no longer come to you.(52:1)

Anyone who claims Gentiles are spirtual Israel, not only, has to contend with Isaiah and Ezekiel, but, also, deny or distort what the apostle Paul wrote, in Rom. 11:25,26: "...blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, And, all Israel shall be saved. As it is written, there shall come out of Zion, the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob. For this is My covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins." Compare what Paul wrote in Romans, with the writer of Hebrews: "For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel (and the house of Jacob) after those days...and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more." (Heb. 8:10-12)

During his earthly ministry Christ focused specifically on the people of Israel. In Matthew he says, "I was not sent except to the lost sheep of Israel." He commanded his apostles,"Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Matt. 10:5-6 Jesus's plan was to prepare Israel as a nation to bring the gospel to the world.

In the three years leading up to Pentecost Christ had preached that the kingdom of God was near. His death and resurrection had fulfilled all that was required to atone for sin. He had risen from the dead. Israel was at the threshold of achieving all that the prophets had foretold. Only one thing was required: the nation had to repent (Acts 2:38). If they would, God the Father would send Jesus Christ to establish his kingdom on Earth (Acts 3.19-21). These events would correlate perfectly with Daniel's 70 week timeline with the events of Revelation being fufilled during this last week.

The apostles being filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues at Pentecost was a key element of God’s prophetic program to Israel (Joel 2:16). It was not the birth of the Body of Christ. These events were an essential part of the new covenant announced by Jeremiah (31:31-33) “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people,” which Jesus had initiated at the Last Supper (Matthew 26.27-28). Peter was warning the last days were at hand.

Consider: The Lord's parable recorded in Luke 13: 6-9. “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’”The above parable is referring to Christ's three year ministry, when He sought fruit in Israel, and found none. Still, He decided to postpone, for one more year, their national judgement, that of Israel being cut off.

Peter’s message in Acts was a message of repentance. His message echoed the message of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Twelve except that it followed Jesus’ resurrection. Peter did not preach the death and resurrection of Christ as a glorious victory over sin and death but as a cause of condemnation for Israel. Not until Paul was Christ’s death and resurrection preached as good news and the message of reconciliation declared (2 Corinthians 5.18-21). For Peter, the kingdom of God, proclaimed throughout the gospels, was still the plan of God. He called upon the nation to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2.38). Paul’s message is “believe and be saved”. This is the message for the Church today.

After Pentecost, as late as Acts 10, Peter and the apostles had not gone to the Gentiles. In Acts 10, God gave Peter a vision and a specific command to go to the the Gentile Cornelius’ house. Peter obeyed, but not joyfully. "But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean." Peter is still following dietary laws! "And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again(Acts 10:14-16). "Then he said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation? But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. (10:28)." When Peter went to relay this news to the other apostles they were thrilled right? "Salvation has now come to the Gentiles," they rejoiced! No, quite the opposite. "Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, saying, “You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” (Acts 11:1-3)

They “took issue with him”. In their view, Peter had abandoned the divine program. Only after Peter related the entire episode did they quiet down and accept him.

The Apostles took Christ at his word when he said he was returning soon to establish His Kingdom. Were they foolish for selling off their possesions in anticipation of the Lord's imminent return? The expectation was the Lord would return before some of them would die. ..."There are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the kingdom of God." Luke 9:27 ..."there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power." Mark 9:1 Matthew also records,"...there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." (16:28) Saying some would not die implies that many or most would. If by kingdom Christ meant the church at Pentecost this would not be plausible given the short amount of time between these statements and Pentacost.

The Body of Christ began with the conversion of the Apostle Paul. When God saved him in Acts 9, Paul became the first man to receive God's mercy and grace in this new dispensation. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering as a pattern to those who are going to believe on him for everlasting life (1 Tim 1:16). Paul was the first in line "in the beginning of the gospel" he received mercy: "Now you Phillipians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only (Phil 4:15)." But what about the twelve apostles? Were those believers saved before Paul not recipients of God's mercy? Yes, they were. However, Peter and the others were saved under the "Gospel of the kingdom ( Matt 4:23)," in the covenant of circumcision (Acts 7:8), during the dispensation of the law. Paul became a pattern for those who now only have to believe to be saved.

Paul rarely used the term kingdom and not in the technical sense that Jesus did. Yet, he emphasizes being in Christ's body 117 times, mentioning the Body 24 times, and that believers are "in Christ"(77 times) and being "in Him"(16 times). The letters from those of the kingdom gospel never mention the Body of Christ once.

Ecclesiology Debate: Opening Statement 1 (Tyler)

I am debating Beau Ballentine on Facebook, and thought I'd copy the posts to my blog here. Enjoy!

The debate resolution is: The "body of Christ" did not begin until Acts 9.

Opening Statement – Negative (My own opening statement...copied from Facebook so these will probably lose some italics and bolds, both in my own posts and in my opponents')

The debate resolution is “the ‘body of Christ’ did not begin until Acts 9.” I deny this statement, but it would probably be helpful, especially since I am starting the debate, to put in positive terms what my position is with regard to when the “body of Christ” started. So that’s how I’ll begin my opening statement: I’ll state my position with some necessary qualifications, and then begin to develop a scriptural argument for it. While there may be some anticipation of the other side’s objections inherent in this first presentation, I feel it is important to keep focused on laying out my own view positively first.

My own view, stated positively, is that the “body of Christ” began at Pentecost, in Acts 2. Now, I should define and explain a little bit more fully what that means and does not mean in my view. What I mean is that the community of believers united to the crucified and risen Christ, and to each other in Christ, both Jew and Gentile (that’s important for our debate), called the “body of Christ” and the “church” in various places in the NT, began at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2. However, there are some truths that need to be added to that statement to nuance it. First, this specific group of people began to be gathered together during Jesus’ earthly ministry, long before Pentecost. One could point out as watershed moments in this regard either Jesus’ call of the first disciple who would become an apostle, or perhaps Peter’s confession of Jesus’ Messianic identity in Matthew 16:16, after which Jesus declares, “ ‘Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it’” (Matt. 16:17-18, my emphasis). The idea here is that the apostolic witness and confession of Jesus as the Messiah (especially after His completed work in the cross and resurrection) is foundational to the church (cf. Eph. 2:20).

Second, from a systematic-theological perspective, there is a sense in which I would place the beginning of the “body of Christ” all the way back in the Old Testament. As any Reformed covenant theologian—one who holds to a relatively high degree of continuity between the major biblical covenants (especially the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New)—I see the people of God across redemptive history as essentially one. This theological perspective, in its weakest forms and presentations, is admittedly the most prone to the danger of flattening out too much the rich contours of the overall biblical narrative, and downplaying any and all discontinuity between the Testaments as redemptive history moves forward. However, in its best forms, which acknowledge important covenantal discontinuities which are really there in the text (and I’ll be mentioning one of those below if there is space), I believe a relatively traditional Reformed “covenant theology” perspective on the oneness of the gospel message and the people of God across the ages is the most biblical. There is a real sense in which Israel, brought out of Egypt and constituted a nation, was typologically (that is, in an anticipatory, pictorial way), the “body of Christ.” Beyond typology, though, the believers among them were even ultimately saved by the same spiritual realities as us, even though the outward expression of their faith looked different during that era, since they had faith in the coming fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ.. As Paul says, they “all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:3-4). Speaking of the wilderness generation specifically, the author of Hebrews says that “we have had good news preached to us [euēngelismenoi; the KJV translates it as “the gospel preached”], just as they also” (Heb. 4:2, my emphasis). There is also a real sense in which the Patriarchs, personally called out by God into covenant relationship with Him, anticipated, and in a sort of trans-historical way, constituted part of, the “body of Christ.” In Romans 4, Abraham is given as the ultimate OT paradigm of faith, receiving the gracious promises of God which are all centered in the gospel. In another place, Paul can even go so far as to say that the Scripture “preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham” (Gal. 3:8). One may even consider the proto-gospel, the gospel in seed form, in Gen. 3:15, and everyone who put their trust in that promise, and count them as members of the “body of Christ” in an anticipatory and also trans-historical way.

However, in the most common NT usage, and in a more biblical-theological sense—that is, the sense which has in view not so much ultimate, topically-arranged, trans-historical ideas, but rather the unfolding progression of redemptive history and the accompanying terminology in the inscripturated revelation—the “body of Christ” strictly only refers to those who have, in this life, experienced existential union with the risen Christ since His coming and the completion of His work. Old Testament saints had what at least one pastor and theologian has called “prospective” or “proleptic” union with Christ (they looked forward in faith to the time when Christ would come, accomplish redemption, and they would finally be existentially or “experientially” united with the risen Christ), such that “apart from us they would not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:40). They were justified the same way as we are, through faith. Again, see Romans 4 for Abraham and David as examples. The only way God could have justly “passed over sins previously committed” was in view of the propitiatory sacrifice Christ was coming to make, the benefits of which are received by faith, then as now (Rom. 3:25). There is and only ever has been only one way of salvation, namely, faith in Christ, whether the explicit content of the faith was mere shadowy promises before Christ, or the fully revealed gospel after His coming, death, and resurrection. That’s really the main thing the covenant theology perspective on the people of God described above is concerned to protect—grace through faith in the promises purchased by Christ as the only way of salvation across all history; it is not intended to assert that there is absolutely no difference at all between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church. There are real aspects of progression and discontinuity.

Still, my thesis in this debate, expanded to a fuller statement, is that beginning with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there is and will only ever continue to be one group of people with whom God is dealing in a savingly gracious way, and among whom all of His promises are being fulfilled. Another way I would state it as a distinct belief is: there is only one covenant people of God today, and that is the “body of Christ”—the body of believers in Christ who are united to Him in His death and resurrection by faith—which consists of both Jews and Gentiles in one body, and which began at Pentecost with primarily Jewish believers yet which is not fundamentally distinct from the groups of converts to Christ among the Gentiles which came into being under the apostolic ministry of Paul, after his own conversion in Acts 9. Beau maintains that the “body of Christ” came into being in Acts 9 with the conversion of Saul/Paul and the beginning of his ministry to the Gentiles, and is categorically distinct from the group of Jewish believers who received the Spirit at Pentecost. I maintain that this is an artificial and misleading distinction.

My understanding of the Scriptures (together with Luke’s account of Peter’s reading of Joel) is that the significance of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the beginning of the fulfillment of the Old Testament Prophets’ whole teaching about the “last days” brought in by the Messiah: God would restore His people, include the nations/Gentiles at large in His covenant blessing, and all who would be united to the crucified, risen, and victoriously ascended Messiah through faith would be filled with His very own Spirit and enabled to enjoy full “sanctuary privileges” as priests together with Him. No longer would there be the necessity of merely human priests or animal sacrifices in order for the faithful to approach and worship God (Heb. 8:11/Jer. 31:34), because Christ, the one true high priest and ultimate mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5), will have made purification for sins (Heb. 1:3) and then entered within the heavenly veil as a forerunner before us, in the priestly order of Melchizedek (Heb. 6:19-20).

The whole book of Hebrews is designed to spell many of these things out in detail, but the author starts really getting to the climax of his argument in chapter 8 when he quotes Jeremiah 31. The main purpose of the book of Hebrews is to encourage a group of Jewish Christians during a period of intense persecution by other Jews, and to admonish them not to capitulate to their persecutors by returning to the old-era observance of the ceremonial Law and outward “holiness code” of the Mosaic Covenant. In view of Christ’s completed work and the present reality of the New Covenant (notice the pluperfect tense of “obtained” and “enacted” in Heb. 8:6), for the believers addressed in Hebrews to go back and live as if they were still relating to God on the basis of the Mosaic administration would be tantamount to apostasy (hence the buildup of increasingly severe “warning” passages in the book).

In Hebrews 8’s application of Jeremiah 31 (and in fact, in Hebrews 10:11-17’s application of it even more so), we see a direction connection between the “new covenant,” the outpouring of the Spirit, and the finished work of Christ. It is no surprise, then, that when we look at Pentecost in Acts 2, we see strong thematic and semantic connections with other passages in the New Testament which speak of Christ’s accomplished work, people receiving His Spirit through faith, and thereby being constituted as the New Covenant Church in fulfillment of Jeremiah 31.

While I don’t want to assume too much or put words in Beau’s mouth before he lays out his view, it is argued by some that Jeremiah 31’s prophecy of the New Covenant, because it is said to be made “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,” has little or nothing to do with the Church in this present inter-advental era, but rather awaits fulfillment in a Millennium, among ethnic/national Israel alone. My view, in contradistinction to this, is that while there was a proximate fulfillment of the New Covenant and restoration promises in the partial return of the Israelites from exile prior to Christ’s coming, and while the ultimate consummation of the New Covenant blessings awaits Christ’s future return at the end of this age, the New Covenant has been inaugurated by the accomplishment of redemption in Christ’s death/resurrection/ascension/Pentecost. This is proven most directly by Hebrews 8 as I mentioned above. Note that the entire apologetic of the book of Hebrews would fall apart if the New Covenant and its attendant blessings were not a present reality; Christ is the mediator of the New Covenant, and if such was not a present reality at and after Pentecost, the audience of Hebrews would have had every right to object to the author’s exhortation, and continue to fall back into observance of the Old Covenant’s types and shadows—things which became “obsolete…old…ready to disappear (Heb. 8:13), and which were ordained by God only “until a time of reformation” (Heb. 9:10). “For this reason [Christ] is the mediator of a new covenant…” (Heb. 9:15, emphasis mine). Thus, Paul sees even his own Gentile-focused ministry as being one of “a new covenant,” a covenant “not of the letter but of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:9).

So what of this “house of Israel” and “house of Judah” business in Jeremiah? Was the author of Hebrews, or Paul in 2nd Corinthians, confused about the fulfillment of this majestic prophecy? Of course neither Beau nor I would say so, and we both have ways—presumably—of dealing with these texts together. The question for this debate will largely be: whose interpretation of the whole of Scripture on the nature and identity of God’s people(s) at Pentecost and today is the most consistent, and seems to artificially manipulate various texts of the Bible the least? Whose exegesis is demonstrating a more consistent message from text to text in Scripture, with the least special pleading? Additionally, whose message seems to fit better with the idea of Christ’s person and work as the sum total of God’s plan of redemption, and the locus of the fulfillment of all His promises (Eph. 1:10; 1 Cor. 8:6; 2 Cor. 1:20; Col. 1:17; 2 Cor. 5:19; Jn. 1:12, 17; etc.)?

Now then, my way of understanding the application of Jeremiah’s New Covenant prophecy for the houses of Israel and Judah is that the “body of Christ,” the “Church,” and the “bride of Christ” (all terms which I take as synonymous with each other) was definitively born and began to experience the blessings of the New Covenant at Pentecost and beyond, in one body which includes Jews and Gentiles whether at the “mother church” in Jerusalem or through the missionary ministry of Paul and his companions to the Gentiles. It is in this one body, the Church, composed of Jews and Gentiles who have faith in Christ, that the fulfillment of all the New Covenant prophecies takes place, and nowhere else—not in any national expression of ethnic Israel, neither now nor in the eschaton. How may I justify this view in light of Jeremiah 31’s emphatic promise of the continuation of the “nation” of Israel (Jer. 31:35-36)?

My answer is simply the emphatic and repeated teaching of the New Testament that in Christ, Jew and Gentile are covenantally counted as Jews/Israelites, are incorporated into one body (the New Covenant Church) in Christ, and receive the fullness of OT Israel’s promised inheritance there. There are strands of both continuity and discontinuity with OT language on many issues related to this teaching.

One example of discontinuity is the shift from the geo-political/national expression of God’s one covenant people to a multi-ethnic, multi-national priesthood and kingdom. 1st Peter 1 bears this out in its application of Exodus 19:6’s language to the Christians “throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1:1) who are “…a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession…” (2:9). We see here that Christians scattered abroad (no longer constituted as a geo-political entity!) are those who are identified with and receive the same blessings promised to the OT “nation” of Israel. I am aware that there are those who would restrict the audience of Peter’s letter to Jewish believers and thereby argue that their Jewishness alone justifies Peter’s language here, and Gentiles in the “body” which is the Church as distinct from Israel would not rightly be labeled thus. However, even considering Peter’s introduction with language like “scattered [Gk.: diasporas]” (1:1), language which makes one think primarily of the Jewish diaspora, it would seem an exceedingly odd thing to refuse to apply an entire book of the New Testament (which title, by the way, actually means “New Covenant”), which is admittedly probably largely written to Jewish Chrisitans, to all Christians—those who are “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood…” (1:2). What Gentile believer does not fit this description?

Moreover, Revelation 1 declares that the “churches that are in Asia” (v.4) are among those whom God has made to be “a kingdom, priests to [Christ’s] God and Father…” (v. 6). Similarly, Revelation 5 speaks of men bought by the blood of the Lamb “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (v. 9) as men made to be a “kingdom and priests to our God…” (v. 10).

Can we be sure, though, that Gentiles in the Church are truly the ones who inherit every promise given to OT Israel? We can be, from the following lines of teaching in Scripture.

1) Galatians 1, written by Paul to the “churches of Galatia,” teaches emphatically that there is one gospel and that any gospel which differs from that which the apostle Paul taught must be rejected, even if it comes from an angel (1:6-8).

2) Perhaps the most powerful chapter for this debate, Galatians 3 speaks of those who are “of the works of the law” (those who maintain or revert to identification with Old Covenant ceremonial practices rather than recognizing the fulfillment of all of them in Christ, and/or depend on their own works in general for their justification) as being “under a curse” (3:10); and then Paul makes an extensive argument for the divine purpose of the Law and its proper place in a theology of redemptive history, and ends that whole discussion by arguing that all who have faith in Christ are true “sons of God” (3:25) and “Abraham’s descendants” (3:29). This is because Christ Himself is the true “seed” of the woman promised in Gen. 3:15 (Gal. 3:16), the one truly faithful—(and literal, physical, ethnic!) Israelite who alone would perfectly fulfill the demands of the moral law and indeed the whole Mosaic covenant. Therefore, all who are united to Christ by faith (see Rom. 6, Col. 3, etc. for different ways of speaking of “union” with Him), are counted—legitimately!—as true Israelites and therefore “heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29). There is then, covenantally speaking, “neither Jew nor Greek” (v. 28).

3) Galatians 5 teaches that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything…” (v. 6).

4) Romans 1 teaches that there is one gospel “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (v. 16).

5) Romans 2:25ff relativizes physical circumcision and declares true Jewish identity as being a matter “of the heart, by the Spirit” (v. 29). The OT itself made the spiritual significance plain long ago! (Deut. 10:16 for just one example).

6) As regards justification by Christ’s work which bought the New Covenant (Lk. 22:20), after two and a half chapters indicting Jew and Gentile for sin, Romans 3 says that “there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified…in Christ Jesus” (vv. 23-24).

7) Very significantly, Romans 4 says that Abraham is the father of “all who believe” (v. 11) and “not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham” (v. 12). Therefore, the promise to Abraham and his descendants that he would be “heir of the world” (an expansion, not a denial, of the original land promise!), would be “not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham” (v. 16). Paul quotes Gen. 17:5 in support, showing how OT itself foreshadowed this reality.

8) Romans 9 explains with a number of illustrations (Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Hosea’s names of ‘My People’ and ‘Not My People’ (v.26) ) how it has always been the case that “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (v. 6); that is, only the believing remnant have inherited the blessings of God’s covenant promises. Faith matters, not ethnicity or nationality, and in this New Covenant era, until the eschaton, it is Gentiles who predominantly attain the “righteousness which is by faith” in Christ (v. 31).

9) Romans 10:12…again, “no distinction between Jew and Greek” with regard to salvific blessings of Christ and His New Covenant.

10) Romans 11 needs to be discussed, but I will leave it for now. I take the most common postmillennial view of this chapter, and reject the most common Reformed amillennial view.

11) Ephesians 2 spells out magnificently how the Gentiles in the flesh, once far off and estranged from Israel’s commonwealth and covenant promises, have been “brought near” in Christ, and incorporated with them into “one body” through the cross (vv. 11-16). They are “no longer strangers and aliens, but…fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household” (v. 19).

12) Ephesians 3 declares the “mystery” of the gospel to be the inclusion of the Gentiles in the one “body” as “fellow heirs” (v. 6).

13) Ephesians 4 teaches that there is “one body…one Spirit…one faith, one Lord, one baptism” (vv. 4, 5).

Much more can and must be said and spelled out more fully, but I am close to or slightly over my word limit already. But my main argument is clear, hopefully: the NT teaches that faith-union with Christ—a literal, ethnic Jew who fulfilled the Law!—justly constitutes a believer, whether Jew or Gentile physically, as an heir of every last OT promise of God to His people, especially the New Covenant promises which sum up all the others. Thus, believers in Christ, whatever ethnic, national, or socio-economic background, are “fellow heirs” with Christ (Rom. 8:17). I personally own, by God’s grace alone, through faith, all the promises, because “as many as are the promises of God, in [Christ] they are yes [or ‘Amen’]” (2 Cor. 1:20). And by God’s doing (1 Cor. 1:30), I am indeed “in Christ” by faith. Hallelujah!