In What Ways Is God our God in the Covenant of Grace?

Opening his lengthy treatment of the covenant of grace in the Institutes, Francis Turretin notes that getting this right is of central importance to theology because it is “the center and bond of all religion, consisting in the communion of God with man and embracing in its compass all the benefits of God towards man and his duties towards God” (Top. 12, Qu. 1, par. I). That certainly doesn’t leave much out does it? But that’s not surprising, is it? Turretin is right. Looking at the biblical storyline, it’s a matter of covenants made, broken, renewed, enforced, and ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

Of course, the central covenant promise in the Scriptures is that “you will be my people, and I will be your God” (Jer, 30:22′ cf. Exod. 6:7; Lev. 26:12). God’s gift to us, in the covenant, is quite simply himself. We will be his and he will be ours. But that raises the question, “How is God our God in the covenant of grace?” not in the sense of, “How is this accomplished?”, but “What is the result?” What goes into God becoming our God? What are the “benefits” of God being our God, so to speak?

In the next section (Top. 12, Qu. 2), among other things, Turretin goes ahead and tries to outline four ways in which God becomes our God in the promise of the covenant. God becomes ours: (1) according to his nature & attributes and persons; (2) according to the communication of goods; (3) according to our conformity to God; and (4) according eternity of good things. The section is rather stunning (and lengthy). While I can barely scratch the surface, in what follows, I’ll try sketch what a blessings Turretin outlines in our possession of God according to these four categories. And when I do, we’ll hopefully begin to see how he can say that the covenant encompasses “all the benefits of God towards man.”

1. According to Nature and Persons. For all Turretin’s strengths as a theologian, he rarely waxes poetic, but this next section is beautiful, so I’ll end up quoting him at length a couple of times. Turretin notes that in reconciliation, we are brought into communion with God. We move from a relationship of opposition to love, we relate to God no longer as an angry judge to us but a Father. In the covenant, we are betrothed to him as a husband and brought under his protection as a King protects his people. Because of this, we receive him as our God according to his attributes. But what does that mean?

God so gives himself to us as to be ours as to all the attributes (conducing to our advantage and salvation). They are well said to be ours by fruition and use because their salutary effects flow unto us. Ours is the wisdom of God for direction; the power of God for protection; the mercy of God for the remission of sins; the grace of God for sanctification and consolation; the justice of God for the punishment of enemies; the faithfulness of God for the execution of promises; the sufficiency of God for the communication of all manner of happiness. And as sin brought innumerable evils upon us, we find a remedy for all in the divine properties: wisdom heals our ignorance and blindness, grace our guilt, power our weakness, mercy our misery, goodness our wickedness, justice our iniquity, the sufficiency and fulness of God our poverty and indigence, fidelity our inconstancy and fickleness, holiness our impurity and life our death.

Okay, so that’s the attributes. But what does it mean for God to be given to us “personally”, or according to the persons of the Trinity? Again, Turretin, at length:

God is ours personally, inasmuch as the individual persons are ours and give themselves to us for accomplishing the work of redemption: the Father electing, the Son redeeming, the Holy Spirit sanctifying. He becomes our Father by adoption when he receives us into his own family and regards, cherishes and loves us as sons (1 Jn. 3:1). The Son becomes ours by suretyship when he offers himself as the surety to make satisfaction for us and as the head, to rule over and quicken us. He becomes ours as a Prophet, revealing salvation by the light of his doctrine; our Priest, who purchases it by his merit; and our King, who applies it (when acquired) by the efficacy of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit becomes ours when he is sent to us and gives himself to us as sanctifier and consoler that he may dwell in us as his temples and enrich us with his blessings, light, strength, joy, liberty, holiness and happiness. Thus our communion is with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (1 Jn. 1:3; 2 Cor. 13:14). Hence, baptism, which is a seal of the covenant, is administered in their name so that we may be consecrated as sons of God, the Father, as members of the Son and as temples of the Holy Spirit and enjoy the blessings flowing from each person–the mercy of the Father, the grace of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit.*

Already, it becomes apparent what Turretin means when he says that all of the benefits and blessings of God towards humanity are seen in the benefits of the covenant in communion with God. But wait, there’s more!

2. In the Communication of Goods. I won’t do the lengthy quote thing here. Still, Turretin moves on to point out that “He cannot be our God without all things belonging to him becoming ours.” As Paul tells us, all things are ours because we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s and so we have all things in him (1 Cor. 3:21-23). Piling up verse after verse, Turretin shows us how God’s creatures serve us, God’s angels protect us, God’s earth is our inheritance, and God’s promises (for this life and the next) are ours. Every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies is ours because God is our God through the covenant in Christ (Eph. 1:3).

3. In Conformity to God. It would be absurd, though, to believe that God could become ours without our own transformation. Turretin teaches us that God “is not satisfied with pouring upon us the salutary effects of his properties, but wishes further to impress upon us their mark and likeness (as far as a finite creature can bear it) that we may be ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4) and be like to it (which is the most perfect form of communion).” Here is the beginning of what we might loosely call Turretin’s doctrine of “theosis“, only with a very careful attention to the Creator/creature distinction. Turretin says here that just as the sun shining into a diamond irradiates it with its glory, so does God’s shining splendor fill his children and “makes us shine like many suns” (Matt. 13:43). True communion through the covenant requires conformity to his holy character, as well as happiness, immortality, and glory in body as well as as the soul, which means that our conformity will include our resurrection so that “we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2).

4. For An Eternity of Good Things. Finally, Turretin tells us that none of these things could make us perfectly happy “unless perpetuity was added to them.” In other words, could you imagine being perfectly satisfied in having all of these things while knowing they that were only for a little while? Because God is unfailingly good, his promise to be our God extends into eternity. “So that as long as God will be God (and he will be so forever), he will also be our god that we may forever enjoy his communion and happiness”, as the Psalmist declares “This God is our God for ever and ever” (Ps. 48:14). And we can be confident of this, not only because of the nature of the promise, but with all the other blessings of the covenant like justification, deliverance from death, adoption, the gift of the Spirit, a new heart, and the resurrection of the body, who can imagine this continuing for only a short time?

I think there’s more than enough to meditate on here for while–actually, for an eternity–so I’ll wrap it up. The underlying point I hope you’ll come away with is this: blessing of the covenant is God. We don’t go to God for anything else because anything else we might want is already given to us with the gift of the Triune God who is the overflowing source of all good things. You will never receive a greater promise than this: “I will be your God.”

Soli Deo Gloria 

*I also found a post where Scott Swain comments on the two lengthy Turretin quotes after I decided to write this post. Not only did he save me the time of typing them out, the comments are worth your time.

Locating Atonement in Romans 8 #LATC15

This last week was the LA Theology Conference 2015 put on by Fred Sanders and Oliver Crisp and as usual, it was a delight. It was also a challenge. The subject of the conference was “locating atonement” with respect to other key doctrines. The idea is that atonement is one doctrine that, in particular, tends to get stretched out of shape unless it is properly situated within the broader framework of Christians thought. Well, the speakers all did a bang-up job of relating the atonement to various subjects in Christian theology and I can’t wait for the book to come out in the fall. But instead of summarizing them, I figured I would honor the spirit of the conference by doing a bit of “locating” of my own.

lamb slainIn this (hopefully) brief post, I want to say something about what we can see about the proper doctrinal location of the atonement based in most part on Romans 8:1-17, (with some bouncing about in the rest of Romans 8 and a few other texts). In other words, given that this section contains a passage universally acknowledged as a key atonement text in the New Testament, which doctrinal layers or themes need to be acknowledged in order to grasp Paul’s logic in the text. If you don’t have a Bible nearby, I invite you to read it here.

First, I have to acknowledge this will be an uneven, rather surface-level, engagement at points. It is a blog post. Second, not everything that can be said about atonement, nor atonement in this passage, will be said. I go into far greater depth in this lengthy piece, as well as others, but this is just a short one intended to demonstrate the way the Scriptures themselves situate the truth of God’s work through the Cross of Jesus.

1. Triune – First, note that the atoning action is clearly the work of the Triune God.  The work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit structure the passage as a whole. It all begins in verse 3 with God (the Father)’s action in “sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Here we have the first action of the Father who moves to “send” the Son, in proper Trinitarian fashion, as the originator of the atoning action in Christ. At the same time, this verse also introduces the Son’s action: being “sent.” For this action–this sending/being sent–to happen, there is an inner conformity, a unity of action between the Father and the Son. While the Father “offers up” his Son (Rom. 8:32), the Son offers himself up to Father (Eph. 5:1). Although it is not stated in this text, it must also be remembered that Luke shows us that the Father sends the Son on his historical mission which culminates at the Cross in and by the power of the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:33-35; 3:16, 21-22; 4:1, 14, 18). Also, the author of Hebrews reminds us that the Son “through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God” (Heb. 9:14).  In which case, we see already the three Persons at work in the Father’s sending of his Son and the Son’s coming at the behest of the Father. (As we’ll see below, the Spirit’s presence and work pervades the passage).

2. Incarnational—Looking to that same early passage, we see that the atonement of Christ has as its necessary condition the coming of the Son in “the likeness of sinful flesh” (8:3). It was necessary that the Father send the Son in the “likeness” (homoioma) of this sinful flesh, in order to identify with sinful humanity as far as possible, without sinning, as the rest of the New Testament tells us, and thereby be the place where He could deal with the sin of humanity. The logic of sinlessness is present here, even if it is not as clearly spelled out as it is in other texts. While not present here, we should also note that it is in the incarnation that the impassible God assumes humanity in order to undergo passion on our behalf, in order to one day end our passion.

3. Penal—Next, the atonement of the Son has, in some sense, a clearly legal and penal efficacy. Whatever the Son does, it is clear the result is that “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). What’s more, Paul tells us that the Father sent the Son precisely to do what “the Law” was insufficient to do, weakened as it was by our sinful flesh, which set us in constant opposition to it (8:7).  God “condemned (katakrima) sin in the flesh” of Jesus, “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:3-4). For anyone looking to grapple with text of Scripture, I don’t know what we can term this language of “condemnation” other than legal, forensic, and penal.

4. Sacrificial—Of course, the atonement is also sacrificial.  The Father condemns sin in the flesh of Jesus by putting him forward “for sin” (8:3). This term peri hamartias (for sin) was regularly used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew term for “sin offering” in the OT (Lev. 5:6-7; 11; 16:3, 5, 9; Num. 6:16;  7:16; 2 Chron. 29:23-24). How does this deal with sin? James Dunn says in his Romans commentary, “The theology is fairly clear…the death of the sin offering effects God’s condemnation of sin by destruction of the sinful flesh.” In this way, the wrath of God is propitiated/expiated/cleared, and judgment is rendered (Rom. 3:25). So then, the Father hands over the Son, the Son offers himself up in the Spirit to be a sin offering, removing the guilt from his people.

5. Covenantal–Which brings us to the next locus, the covenantal dimension. While this should be evident from the language of the Law in the passage, it is made even clearer when we notice the “in Christ” language. As N.T.Wright has argued, “Christ” should not simply be taken as a name, but rather read with its full titular sense drawn from its Jewish background, Messiah, “the one in whom the people of God are summed up.” Along with this, the phrase “in the Messiah” should be seen to have an incorporative sense. It can at times connote or denote “the people of whom the Messiah is the representative.” Jesus is the Representative Messiah in whom people can be incorporated by faith, so that his accomplishments can become theirs.It is because of this logic that, if the Father deals with sin in his Son, then he has dealt with the sin of those who are in him. It is for this reason that there is “no more condemnation” for those who are “in Christ Jesus” (8:1). (Also, for those who weren’t aware, Wright’s formulation is basically a modified, Reformed federal theology of union with Christ with some 2nd Temple beef.)

6. Pneumatological– This next one is not immediately obvious, but in this passage the atonement is a pneumatological reality in various senses. First, as we pointed out from Hebrews, the Son offers himself in the Spirit. Second, The Father’s actions through the Spirit do not end with sending the Son, or condemning sin, but continue on through the resurrection of Jesus Christ by the power of that same Spirit (8:11).  Paul indicates that the Spirit is the agent by which God raises Jesus from the dead, by the corollary that if we have the same Spirit we will “also” be given life through that same Spirit as Christ was.   Jesus’ resurrection is an important part of God’s atoning action in Christ because according to Paul, he “was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Resurrection as vindication is itself a justifying act, vindicating Jesus as the Representative Messiah of his people.

Third, the Spirit is the gift the atonement is aimed at, as well as the agent of the atonement’s sanctifying goal. Having received the Spirit, believers can live not according to the flesh, but out of the power of the Spirit. They are then no longer hostile towards God and his law (Rom. 8:7-9). It is in this way that Paul says the “righteous decree” was “fulfilled in us”(Rom. 8:4). The term translated “righteous decree” (dikaioma) is a peculiar one which speaks of “the righteous decree”, or the “covenant decree” of the law for life. In this case, the “decree” is the decree of Deut. 30:6-20, which says that those who do these things “shall live.” The believers’ lives in the Spirit conform to it and so the decree is “fulfilled” in them. The Son was sent that believers might be given the Spirit, through whom they can now have a life at peace with God. They can be obedient to his revealed will, his law. This is because this Spirit is a “spirit of adoption”, which confirms them as children of God, co-heirs with Christ who enables them to pray with Christ, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15-17).

7. Eschatological – Finally, the atonement is connected to eschatology. The atonement exhausts the curse of the law and so issues in New Resurrection and New Creation. Paul says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in one, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). This new life of reconciled relationship with God issues ultimately in the resurrection of the believer. Later Paul notes that those who are in Christ and have the “first fruits of the Spirit” wait for the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). This is the final stage in our being remade into the image of our firstborn brother, Jesus (Rom. 8:29). It is not a present reality, but a hope which believers wait for in patience (Rom. 8:25). This hope is also connected to reconciliation with creation. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God…in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of God” (Rom. 8:19-21). When believers receive the redemption of their bodies, creation itself will receive redemption. The two are intimately connected (Rom. 8:23).

According to Paul, atonement has Triune, incarnational, penal, sacrificial, covenantal, pneumatological, and eschatological dimensions. And that’s just one passage. So how much of a tragedy is it, then, when in our preaching and teaching we separate out Christ’s work into its own airtight, doctrinal package? No, it is only when we set the atonement in its proper doctrinal location in our preaching and teaching that our people can see it for the multi-faceted, saving jewel of the Gospel that it is.

Soli Deo Gloria

God, the Holy One of Israel, Has Chosen To Be *Your* God. This Is Good News.

Even though I’ve known this for a while, I’m still constantly amazed at how helpful Calvin’s commentaries are. I’m preaching through a passage in Isaiah 43 this week, so I’ve dug into a number of solid, modern commentaries, but I still come back to Calvin and am pleasantly surprised to see how well they hold up.

In any case, I ran across a passage that “warmed my heart”, so to speak, that I thought was worth highlighting.

It comes in his comment on Isaiah 43:3, but before I quote it, here is the scriptural passage:

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
    Cush and Seba in exchange for you. (Isaiah 43:1-3)

In the context, Isaiah is presenting us with YHWH’s speech to the future Exiles, promising his salvation to come. Despite their idolatry and faithlessness, YHWH will come, punish the Babylonians through the hand of Cyrus and the Persians, and save his people. He will redeem them. Why? Because, “I am the YHWH your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” God’s identity is the guarantee of Israel’s salvation.

CalvinCalvin comments here:

For I am Jehovah thy God. He confirms the preceding statement by the experience of the past; for the Lord had formerly assisted his people in such a manner that it was reasonable and proper that believers should safely rely on his grace. We must always remember what we had in the former verse, — “Fear not, for I have redeemed thee; I am thy Lord.” These ought to be read unitedly and in immediate connection, because they have the same object; for if the Lord is our God, it follows that he is on our side, and therefore we shall find that he is our Savior.

But if we wish to know by experience that he is our Savior, we must be a part of Israel, not in name only, but so as to give true evidences of godliness during the whole course of our life. This is therefore the foundation of our confidence, that “Jehovah is our God;” and hence it follows that they who do not acknowledge God to be their Father, and who do not rely on his kindness, are wretched, and tremble continually. Wicked men, indeed, indulge in mirth, and even act disdainfully towards God; but their indifference is intoxication and madness of mind, by which they are the more rapidly carried headlong to their destruction. To believers alone this brings the assurance, that he who hath chosen them wishes to be continually their God, and to preserve them; and therefore hath separated them to be his inheritance.

In this sense he calls himself The Holy One of Israel, because while the whole human race is by nature estranged from him, he hath chosen his people that he might set them apart to be his own. Now, though external separation is of little moment, unless God sanctify the elect by the power of his Spirit, yet, because Israel had openly polluted himself, God declares that still his covenant shall not be made void, because he is always like himself. Besides, it is well known that the word holy is used in an active sense for “him who sanctifies;” and therefore if we wish to be certain of God’s love towards us, let us always remember the testimony of our adoption, by which we are confirmed in our hearts, as by a sure pledge, and let us with all earnestness ask it from God.

Those two names: YHWH, your God (Jehovah, the Lord), and “The Holy One of Israel” are to anchor and ground Israel’s hope. This is YHWH your God, the one who has covenanted himself to be your God. He has “chosen to be your God continually.” This isn’t a temporary, passing fancy with him. He has adopted you for life and bound himself to you. As Calvin notes just a bit earlier on verse 1:

I have called thee by thy name. To “call by one’s name” means here, to admit into close relationship, as when we are adopted by God to be his children…For the same reason he adds, Thou art mine, that believers may know that there will always be left a Church among the elect people, because God refuses to be deprived of his rightful possession. In short, he declares that they are his dear inheritance, of which he will never suffer himself to be robbed.

If God has promised to be your God, and you his children, his people, his inheritance, then he is on your side. He is for you.

Of course, Calvin brings out the implied exhortation, which is to demonstrate that you truly are Israel, by clinging to him with our hearts, calling him Father from our soul and walking in growing godliness before him. It is here, of course, where some of us can get discouraged. Who feels that they are showing evidence in their life of holiness? Who isn’t constantly aware of the hundreds of daily failures in their life? The petty thoughts, cheap words, and selfishness the seems to cling to even our best efforts?

It is here that YHWH’s second name comes in. Yes, God is the Holy One of Israel because he has set Israel apart for himself, unlike the other nations. God is the Holy One of Israel because Israel is holy to God. But pushing even deeper, Calvin calls our attention to the promise and comfort attached in that name. God is the Holy One of Israel precisely because he makes Israel holy, not only externally according to the covenant, but eventually in their own nature. In other words, when God adopts you, sets you apart as his own, by his Holy Spirit he’s going to sanctify you, clean you up, change your heart. Why? Because God is unstoppably unchanging. He is not going to let your sin stand in the way of the reality that he has committed himself to being your God. He will be your God and you will be holy to him because he is unchangingly the Holy One.

YHWH God, the Holy One of Israel, has promised to be your God in Christ. That’s enough good news to rest in today

Soli Deo Gloria

Luke Skywalker Never Shot A Blaster Rifle (Or, a Couple Options in Progressive Revelation)

lukeblasterI’ve been thinking of the issue of progressive revelation a bit lately. It keeps coming up the rather feisty discussions around the nature of Scripture, the character of God, and what we do with the Old Testament. Often-times people on both sides of the growing split (and those somewhere in the middle) will appeal to the concept, agree that it’s important for Christians to acknowledge, and yet there remain significant, troubling differences between the conversation partners as to the way this idea ought to be employed in developing our thoughts about God. Actually, it seems that in the current discussions, there is not merely a debate about the application of the concept, but rather there seem to be two entirely different kinds of progressive revelation on offer. Bear with me as I think out loud here.

1. Consistent/Adjunctive. The first concept of progressive revelation I take to be the more traditional of the two. In this case, the progress of revelation means a real growth in the knowledge of God from the beginning of the narrative in Genesis to the end of the narrative in Revelation. At the same time, it is continuous, self-consistent knowledge of God that unfolds and expands as the story progresses. While in the First Testament, we learn that God is by nature one, the New Testament revelation of the Incarnation and the Trinity does not change that, though it significantly alters our understanding of what the confession of God’s oneness means.

In other words, we don’t go from monotheists to tritheists–we go from monotheists to Trinitarian monotheists. It is not the YHWH was lying when he said that he alone was God and that his glory he would give to no other. Instead, it turns out that the Son who took on flesh in Jesus Christ was always to be identified with YHWH. YHWH remains the same today, yesterday, and forever, and all that was said of him in the First Testament is true, but now it there is a deeper layer and dimension to that truth. In a sense, it is by addition, but it’s even more than that. To steal an image from Lewis, it’s less like simply going from a square to a bigger square, but understanding that the square is a cube.

2. Contradictory/Disjunctive.  This one we might call the “evolutionary” view in that it often coincides with an evolutionary understanding of religion inherited from the older history-of-religions approach popular in European scholarship of the last couple centuries. This kind of progressive revelation isn’t progression by way of natural narrative development, or by way of simple addition. Instead, it’s more about moving from higher to lower understanding, not simply less clear to more clear. Older, more primitive religious conceptions such as the worship of multiple gods (polytheism) gives way to the worship of a chief god (henotheism), and eventually to belief in one Creator God (monotheism).*  It includes the possibility not only of expansion in our knowledge of something, but the contradiction of it. For that reason, we may also term this a “disjunctive” kind of progressive revelation.

The most popular example I’ve been seeing lately is about God’s activity in history. The classic extreme version of this is the Marcionite rejection of the Old Testament God as the revelation of a vicious, deficient, Demiurge who is superseded by the revelation of the loving Father of Jesus Christ who wants to save us from our miserable creation. The more recent model, though, is not that extreme. Instead, many suggest that our knowledge of God progresses by learning that while the Ancient Hebrews had some real encounter and true revelation of the Creating and Redeeming God, the revelation of Jesus Christ in the New Testament reveals that there was much falsehood and error mixed in, given their limited vantage point and backwards cultural presuppositions. The advent of Jesus then, “clarifies”, not only by sharpening edges still fuzzy in the OT, or adding a depth dimension, but by also by straightforward negation.  In many ways, God is actually not what Hebrew Scriptures have proclaimed, but only what Jesus in his incarnation reveals him to be. Of this sort of “christocentrism”, we have spoken before.

Revealing Luke Skywalker

Let me clarify illustrate the differences between the two types of progressive revelation by using Star Wars, because Star Wars.

In the first type, we find an analogy in the revelation in The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader has actually been Luke Skywalker’s father the whole time. This is the kind of narrative revelation that is mostly consistent and adjunctive. This is a new fact about Luke that is a shock to the viewer, but it is primarily one that fills out his character, even while it does not contradict what we’ve come to see about Luke’s activities, characteristics, and so forth–at least insofar as we haven’t made our entire of Luke dependent on his not-being-Darth Vader’s son. Yes, our understanding is changed of him and that even changes the way we watch the first movie again. We reinterpret Obi-wan’s words, hearing resonances and layers we didn’t see before. But again, this is essentially a filling out of his character that forwards the narrative in ways that do no violence to what has come before.

Now, imagine a different kind of progression in the story. Imagine that in coming to Return of the Jedi, upon viewing Luke Skywalker’s near-exclusive use of light-saber, we are given to now understand that in the first couple of movies, Luke actually never used a blaster rifle, it being inconsistent with his Jedi ways; it was merely the way Leia and Han understood him at the time. On this scenario, yes, Luke is a character throughout the whole story, and yes, there are some strong continuities, but the narrative unity of the storyline is severely disrupted, rendering its coherence seriously suspect and the author rather confused.

None of the above is yet a straightforward argument one way or another, but more of an exercise in clarification. Of course, I do think that proposals which make greater sense of the unity of the narrative are inherently preferable for a number of reasons. First, they give us a greater sense that the ultimate Author of Scripture is the God of Scripture, and not simply a second-trilogy Lucas sans the special effects. This strengthens our ability to affirm a unity of revelation, and therefore the unity of covenant, or the good, saving purposes of the God of both Testaments.**

Still, clarifying our options can be a helpful exercise for further conversation and study on this point and any excuse for a Star Wars analogy in theology, right?

Soli Deo Gloria

*It should be noted that much of this European scholarship was heavily influenced by Enlightenment presuppositions of a colonialist, imperialistic, and Anti-Semitic sort.

**This also makes more difficult the inadvertent Anti-Semitism of the most history-of-religions approach to progressive revelation.

Reconsidering Justification with Stephen Westerholm (Book Review)

westerholmIt’s one of the odd quirks of my theological education that the New Perspective on Paul and justification is actually the first perspective on Paul I really heard when I came of age theologically. Yes, I’d grown up with sermon-level understandings of the Old Perspective, but my first book on Paul was N.T. Wright’s What St. Paul Really Said and in seminary I read James Dunn’s 700-page Theology of the Apostle Paul cover to cover in my course on Pauline theology. Add to that numerous follow-up articles and works, not least an overload of Wright (I’ve read most of what he’s written on Paul with the exception of his new volume, which I’m only 1/4 of the way through), and it’s safe to say that I’ve been familiar with the main lines of thought among some of the dominant voices in the New Perspective.

Now, of course, I’ve read some Old Perspective scholars as well. I’ve done a little time with R.B. Gaffin, Simon Gathercole, and D.A. Carson, and my favorite current interpreter of Paul with respect to the justification debates is Michael Bird, something of a Reformed mediating figure. Still, when I ran across Stephen Westerholm’s slim (only 100 pages) little volume Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme I was intrigued, so I took a little break from Wright’s big beast and gave it a go.

What caught my attention was Westerholm’s aim to:

…engage with scholars who have posed fresh questions, and proposed fresh answers regarding the familiar texts in which Paul speaks of justification. Though many of have been convinced by their interpretations, my own reinvigorated reading of Paul has led me, in these particular instances, rather to question the claims of the revisionists; I attempt here to explain why. By now a generation of scholars has arisen for whom the more recent proposals represent the only way of reading Paul to which they have been seriously exposed. I trust they may find, in reading these pages, that older interpreters saw aspects of the texts they have missed, or construed them in ways more faithful to Paul. –pg. vii

In other words, Westerholm is looking to register a bit of a minority report on the justification conversation and argue for the viability of older views on certain questions in the face of a somewhat “settled” consensus, or dealing with controversial but influential views in modern scholarship. In essence, it’s a streamlining and update of his earlier work Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics

To do so, he write six chapters, each dealing with a key issue up for grabs in the debate, while focusing on a representative or key scholar whose writings influence the discussion, and, of course, a rigorous analysis of the main texts in question.

  • Chapter 1: In the first chapter, he challenges Krister Stendahl’s contention that modern interpreter’s have been too long in the hold of Western societies quest to find a “gracious God”, instead of focusing on the real issue for Paul, table fellowship between Jew and Gentile.
  • Chapter 2: From there he moves on to modify on E.P. Sanders’ thesis about grace and works in Judaism, arguing that he’s offered a helpful corrective against the notion of “legalistic” Judaism, but has nonetheless confused Paul’s fundamental argument about grace and works.
  • Chapter 3: Westerholm then engages in a discussion about Pauline anthropology focused on Heiki Raisanen’s thesis that Paul is a bit inconsistent about whether humans can or cannot do good.
  • Chapter 4: From there, in one of the longer chapters in the book, N.T. Wright comes under fire with respect to the language of “righteousness” and “justification.” Westerholm argues essentially that he has unjustifiably restricted it to covenant duties and inclusion, instead of a broader concept of righteousness as “doing what one ought to do”, and corresponding notion of justification as acquittal.
  • Chapter 5: Wright’s buddy James Dunn figures prominently in chapter five as Westerholm seeks to establish the meaning of the phrase “works of the Law” as meaning more than just “boundary markers” keeping Jews and Gentiles apart in their little air-tight spaces.
  • Chapter 6: Finally, in a brief little chapter before the summary conclusion, he touches on Douglas Campbell’s controversial critique of “justification theory”, taking issue with his Neo-Marcionite split between a God of justice and a God of deliverance.

Now, given this brief outline of the chapters, it would be an understandable mistake to suppose Westerholm is simply trying to repristinate Pauline theology from about 50 years ago, or 500 years ago for that matter. It would be a mistake nonetheless. Westerholm takes on a number of the insights of the last 50 years of Pauline scholarship in order to nuance and fill out the Old perspective, in which case, you shouldn’t expect a simple rehash of Luther or Calvin.

Highlights – While the whole thing is worth a perusal, for my money the strongest chapters were the first couple of chapters on the “peril of modernizing Paul”, Judaism and grace, and Pauline anthropology. For example, in pushing back on Stendahl’s idea that the Western focus on “finding a gracious God” is a modernizing distortion, among other points, Westerholm points us to Paul’s earliest letter, 1 Thessalonians, which has no mention of justification or the issue of table-fellowship. Right in the first chapter, Paul describes the conversion of the Gentiles thus: “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1:9-10). Through some convincing analysis of this text, among others, Westerholm makes that case that for denizens of ancient Gentile culture used to looking for ways to avert the wrath of the gods, it seems eminently reasonable that the opportunity to find a gracious God through Christ would have been quite appealing. They wouldn’t have been to worried about getting into the Jewish covenant, but the desire for reconciliation makes all sorts of sense. In fact, he pushes further to argue that those who would sideline this “vertical” concern in order to focus on the “horizontal” one, are, in fact, in peril of modernizing Paul themselves.

Quibbles – Of course, I did have a number of quibbles. For instance, against Wright, he definitely makes the case that we can’t reduce righteousness to strict covenant keeping, or covenant-faithfulness. That said, he goes too far when he sets it off from the covenant almost entirely. Westerholm wants us to see keeping covenant obligations as simply one instance of righteousness, or “doing what one ought to do”, instead of the instance par excellence that gives the specific shape that informs the biblical account as a whole. Also, he completely denies the idea that justification has anything to do with covenant inclusion. This is probably linked to my chief frustration, which is that he basically ignored the place of union with Christ, a key element to understanding the relationship between justification and covenant (see Horton or, especially Bird here.) A further issue that probably plays into this is Westerholm’s repeated emphasis on the fact that justification is but one metaphor among many for salvation in Paul. Given that, it makes sense that he makes less of an attempt to work out the connection between covenant and justification. I also, would have liked to see more engagement with Campbell’s volume as that final chapter ends up being a bit of a tease.

Still, that said, it’s a helpful little volume. For those looking to to engage Paul’s gospel of justification from all perspectives, Westerholm’s work is a great place to start–or reconsider–your studies. 

Soli Deo Gloria

Creation, Covenant, Curse, and the Seed of the Woman (The Story Notes #2)

My church is, across all departments, going through The Story, a chronological, abridged edition of the Bible that takes you through the story of Scripture from Genesis to the end of Acts in 31, novel-like chapters. It’s a fun project that’s challenging me to deal with narrative sections, teach large chunks at a clip, and point my kids to Christ throughout the whole redemptive-historical story-line of the text.

That said, it seemed worth it to start posting my notes for these talks on a regular basis. It might happen every week, or not, depending on how helpful I think it is, or time constraints. My one request is that you remember these are pretty rough notes and I’m teaching my students, not a broader audience.

Last week we talked about Genesis 1 and the picture it gives us of the God who stands at the beginning, middle, and end of the story. If last week was the first act (Creation), we’re going to dive in and look at that act again from another angle, as well as the second act, the Fall and where we fit into things.

the-garden-of-edenGenesis 2-3

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but vacation is good for about a week, maybe two. After that we start to go stir-crazy. Something in us desires to do something with actual meaning and purpose. We need to take something up, a cause, a piece of wood to carve, or an idea to flesh out with pen and paper, but we need to do something. We’re task-oriented beings at core. That’s part of what this text is about. It’s about our purpose, our place here in the cosmos.

But first, to understand the human task, you have to understand the human set-up.

God Sets Us Up in The Garden – Remember last week we said that God created the world and everything in it as his Temple, the place where he would dwell with his people? Well, these first sections describe the Garden of Eden as a Temple. It’s got everything that is needed for the Temple, including gold, onyx, the right kind of wood, water, garden stuff. Actually if you follow the language used of the Temple and the Tabernacle in the Law, if you read it, it all mirrors the language we find here in the Garden. The Temple was supposed to mirror the Garden in that it was the place that God dwelt and the Garden was a sort of proto-temple.

Now, beyond that, it’s a sweet set-up. God gives us EVERYTHING. There is food, there is beauty, there is companionship between the man and the woman. It truly is the definition of paradise (minus the resort hotel.) But…that doesn’t mean God put them there to sit around.

For a Task – We see that God makes man and woman, male and female in his Image in Genesis 1. That means that there is something about humans that distinguishes us from the animals and puts us in a place of authority whereby we are to run the world the way God would as his representatives. Well, the same thing is true here in Genesis 2.  That’s what the naming the animals thing was about. It’s Adam assuming his authority, to rule the creation. In other words, he’s starting his job.

What that means is that central to our identity is work. This is weird for a lot of us.

N.D. Wilson points out that a lot of us think that if we were just born into the garden, life would be easy. We think that work is there only because of the fall and sin. That’s not true. This is Genesis 2. Sin hasn’t happened yet. Life as God intended it is good, but part of the good life, is good work. We are inherently task-oriented beings, called to be God’s priest-kings. It makes sense, though, right? God works, so we work. We are made for relationship, yes,  but we’re also made for a job. Two jobs, in fact.

Priest-Kings – First, we are to spread the Kingdom of God or God’s Garden-Temple and second, we are to keep it free from the serpent. Adam is placed in the garden to “cultivate (abad)” and “keep (samar)” it (Gen 2:15). The same two words are translated elsewhere “serve” and “guard”, and when they appear together, they are either referring to Israelites serving or obeying God’s word, or more usually, to the job of the priest in guarding and keeping the Temple. (Num. 3:7-8; 8:25-26; 1 Chron. 23:32) .  In those days, the task was to keep God’s garden ordered, and some theologians (e.g. G.K. Beale) argue, to expand it into the deserted areas, sort of advancing the Kingdom of God as we went. God forms and fills the earth, so we do as well.

Next, we were also born to a fight. We forget that before we fell, we had an enemy. Before we sinned, we had an opponent, the Serpent, or the one the serpent represents, Satan.  See, just as the priests were supposed to keep the Temple precincts clean from pollution Adam’s job was to keep the garden free and clean from the corrupting elements of the Serpent, the Dragon.

This is why our hearts resonate when we see these stories about a task, an adventure, a goal, a fight, a great job to build, or grow, or make beautiful all things. It’s what we were created for. We were made to expand the Garden, to create culture, to fight evil and spread beauty throughout God’s world, just as God does.

The Structure of the Job (Covenant) – Now, there was a structure to the task. See, if we look at the text, it actually shows us that our relationship with God was structured like an ancient covenant treaty. What’s that? Well, it’s kind of an established relationship between a Sovereign King, and a sub-king. The King would protect and bless the sub-king and the sub-king would be loyal and serve the great king. If you compare the text to the ancient copies of these treaties, there is a marked structural similarity:

Now, these are the typical features and how it matches up with what we see in Genesis 2:

  1. Parties Named (the Lord God and the humans)
  2. History of relations (Here’s God giving you everything)
  3. Stipulations (Keep the Garden, Don’t eat from the Tree)
  4. Blesses and Curses for obedience (Tree of Life and eventual immortality, Curse of death)

So, Adam and Eve are the sub-kings promised blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience. The idea is “you will have eternal Sabbath and life if you keep the garden, obey God’s commands and enjoy all that you’ve been given. But, If you disobey and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you’re breaking covenant and bringing death on yourself.” Sounds pretty simple right? Good deal? Yeah, it was. Until this happened.

Re-read Chapter 3:1-11

The Lie and the Fall –  We don’t have time to go into all of this, but what was the Serpent’s basic lie? “God is holding out on you. If you’re going to have the life you deserve, the one you need, you’ll have to take it for yourself apart from God’s command.” This is absurd on multiple levels. In light of what we just read, the idea that God is holding out is ridiculous, right? He gave us everything plus the promise of eternal life, right? But we fell for it. We still do. We still believe if life is going to be good, we need to take control and take what we need for ourselves.

That’s kind of what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is about.  Some think that eventually we would eat from it, when we were ready and had proved faithful, at the time that God appointed. But for now, it remained a test: whether we are going to trust God for our knowledge and life, or if we are going to try and rule our own lives as if we were the great king, instead of just the sub-kings who learn from God what is right and wrong. Will we rule as God would, or will we make up our own rules and take what we think he’s holding out on us?

The Fallout – Now, what could have happened was God could have just killed us right there.  I mean, that’s what he said. That would have been justice. But, but…God is gracious. You might not see it, but what God says next is actually grace.

(Read the curse, Gen. 3:14-24)

Everything is cursed because of them, human relationships, our ability to take delight in our work, and nature itself. In a sense, as they were the King and Queen, like the first link a chain, their fall, their disconnection from God took everything down with them. Now, the grace of this is that, well, again, he didn’t just end it. He let life go on when he could have snuffed it out there.

The second grace is that God frustrates all of our possible attempts of living our lives apart from him. If relationships were perfect, we could make them into gods. If work was perfect, we could make it into a god, that we trust for our happiness and joy. God looks at us and says, ‘I will not let you settle for less. You will try to worship created things, but I will frustrate your efforts to rob yourself of your thirst for a knowledge of me.’ That is grace.

The Hope – Now, looking at things, how do things go forward? God gave them a task, but history has stopped. They believed the lie and fell into sin. They were supposed to keep the garden and defeat the snake, but now they’ve been kicked out of the Garden and been defeated by the snake. God didn’t end it, but on their own, it was still hopeless. On their own, they were out on their luck.

So where does the story go from here? How does it move forward, when Adam stopped it up with sin? With God’s word. That’s how it always works. Creation happened at God’s word and so does the rest of the story.

Curse to the Snake, Promise to the Woman – There is a line here in the pronouncement of God to the snake that is a curse to the snake, but promise to the woman. It says that the ‘seed of the woman’ will crush the Serpent’s head. See, now that’s a weird promise because everywhere else in scripture, ‘seed’, which refers to an heir or progeny, is related to a man. So, it would be ‘Adam’s seed’, or ‘Joseph’s seed.’ But here, it is the seed of the woman who would conquer the Serpent.

Now, back then it could have only been a tantalizing mystery, but for us today, this side of Jesus, we realize that the Seed of the woman refers to Mary’s Son, the great descendant Son of Adam and Eve. Jesus is the who comes to rescue us from the plight we were in.

Jesus is the hope of Adam and Eve and the rest of the world. We’ll continue to see this later on, but Jesus is the new Adam who does right all that Adam did wrong. He is the priest who spreads the presence and kingdom of God throughout the world, like Adam was to do in the Garden. He is the king who defeats Satan the Serpent, and rids the world of his pollution.

And how does he do it? He does it by suffering the curse for us. See, it says that the serpent will bruise his heel.  When Jesus went  to the Cross, the Serpent was going for his heel. But he didn’t know that by going to the Cross Jesus was lifting his heel up to crush his head. The irony is that on the Cross, Jesus suffered the judgment that our sin deserved, the curse that God said would come on Adam. By doing so, he  suffers it in our place and then, passes on the blessings that He actually earned by obeying what Adam was supposed to. This is what we call substitution. Jesus gets what we deserve and we gets what he deserves. In this way, he overcomes the Serpent’s lies and tricks that lead us to death, and gives us life.

This is grace. This is salvation. This is our hope.

Wrap-up – I don’t know where you’re at tonight, but I do know this: you were made for a task. God put you here for a purpose, but like our spiritual parents, you and I have believed the lie that God was holding out on us and have brought death into our lives by trying to get happiness for ourselves. The challenge might be different for all of us tonight:

  1. Stop believing the lie that you need to provide life for yourself and believe that God is good and has given you all you need in Jesus.
  2. Get up and realize that you were made for more than you’ve settled for. You were created for a task, for a fight, for a life that reflects God’s will for the world.
  3. Trust that Jesus has defeated our enemies, taken the curse, and that you’re not disqualified from that calling.

Or again, maybe the challenge is just to worship the great Priest-King, and praise him for his glorious victory over the Serpent, the Dragon. He has conquered through the curse and crushed our enemies’ head!

Soli Deo Gloria

The Promise of Covenant Love: Pt. 2

Meaning of Marriage

Seriously, I cannot recommend this book enough whether you’re single, dating, married, newly-married, divorced, or an infant. Read it.

I ended the last post asking “What does love have to be if it’s something I can promise?” How is it different than the poetic love that Kierkegaard is speaking of? In this post I’ll lay out three differences between poetic and covenantal love, largely drawn from Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage.

1. More Action than Emotion – If poetic love is primarily an affair of the emotions that just sweeps you up in a passion, covenantal love is primarily an action. Paul assumes this when commands husbands to love their wives. (Eph 5:25) You can’t command feelings, but you can command activities. Saying “I love you” or “I do” with a covenantal love in view, is committing yourself to “BE” and “DO” certain things for a person. It is a decision to sacrificially commit yourself fully and wholly in loyalty to another person, putting their welfare, joy, and life above your own. When I promised to love my wife, I didn’t promise “I will always feel warm fuzzies towards you.” I promised, “I will be a husband to you–I will care, pray, show affection, be there when you need me, support you, cling to you, and will your good.”

Now, of course it does involve emotion, but often-times what I find is that these emotions can actually flow from the actions. For example, it might be a date night with my wife bit I’m tired and just want to stay home and watch TV to decompress after a long week. Making the decision to go through the trouble of getting ready, getting dressed, shaving (my neck–because neck beards are unnacceptable), and getting in the car when I don’t really feel like it, surprisingly can lead towards actually feeling like it. The loving action stirs up my loving emotion so by the time we’re on the road, I’m actually excited for the night out with my wife. That’s a microcosm of what can happen in marriage as a whole, when the decision to act in loving ways is made independent of a current emotional basis, the emotion often follows.

2. Other-centered not Self-centered –  The next difference is what love is centered on. Aside from the fact that it’s unstable, our culture’s understanding of love is essentially self-centered. It’s consumeristic in that it basically says, “As long as you fulfill me, please me, tickle my fancy, then I’m here. As soon as the buzz fades, I leave.” If love is primarily about an emotion felt, then you only ‘love’ the person when they are producing feelings in you. Actually, that’s why you’re loving them.  The point is, in this view, love is a potent emotion that the other person inspires in you because of what they do for you, who they are–it’s primarily a selfish experience about you, your wants, your desires.

By contrast, in the Bible love is not primarily about what I get out of the person or what I feel about the person, but about what I am willing to give to the person. Am I willing to give them time, faithfulness, exclusivity? I know how much I love someone by how much I am willing to put their needs ahead of my own, not necessarily how much I “feel” about  them. In consumer love, the self is placed before the relationship: the point is you’re in it to get something out of it. In covenant love, the relationship is placed before the self. In fact, the point is, covenant love is a union where I so identify myself with you, that your needs become my needs, your wants are my wants even when they’re not what I personally want. I am so bound to you that I desire to serve you just like I serve me. Covenant love doesn’t tally. It doesn’t keep records because when I give to you, in love I have identified your needs as my own. Now, how beautiful is this? Two people who have so placed the needstrying to sacrifice, two people trying to out-serve each other, two people out for each other’s joy instead of two people out for their own joy.

3. Vertical v. Horizontal– This brings us to the final difference. If love is primarily an emotional thing, if the reason I go to the other, serve, the other, etc. give emotion to the other is because of the way we make each other feel, then this is essentially a consumer transaction. We are paying each other in warm fuzzies. If that’s the case, then it makes sense to think about marriage as basically something that’s just happening between you and your spouse and to be honest, I don’t know if that’s going to work out for very long. Unfortunately, in most marriages there comes a time when I just can’t say, “I love you” because I don’t feel it. In the hardness of my heart, I’m going to be tempted to say, “You’re not worth it” or “I just don’t have the strength.”

This is where Kierkegaard’s “love transformed by the eternal” comes into play–what if love was not just between two people, but between two people and God? See, when we promise, when we say “I do”,  we’re promising God not our spouse. So, when I’m serving my wife, I’m serving my God. When I’m loving my wife, I’m loving God. I can’t separate the two. Of course, the inverse means that to break faith with spouse is to break faith with God at the same time. This is at the core of why God has something to say about divorce and marriage–as a covenant partner it is His business.

At first this sounds threatening, but in reality, it should be encouraging. If it’s not just me and the sinner I married, then I have a shot. When that day comes when you look at your spouse and you, in the hardness of your heart, might say, “You’re not worth this”–putting my relationship in the context of my relationship with God gives me the strength to love when it’s hard, stick it out when it’s painful, and be faithful anyways. When it’s not just me and another sinner trying to tell each other we’re worth it, it’s a lot easier: Why? Because God is always worth it. Even more than that, it’s not just me and another sinner trying to pull this off on our own strength. If you understand that love has a vertical dimension to it, it means that you can call on God to sustain your love. He has a vested interest in this because ultimately, at the core of who God is and what God has done is the reality covenantal love.

Good News, There is Love
This is something we cannot let our hearts forget: the Gospel is a story about covenantal love. Since we live our lives, and even our marriages, out of the stories we tell ourselves, we need to remind ourselves daily that there is story above all stories–a true story about one, Jesus Christ, who saw his bride and said, “It’s not about me.” He was not drawn to her because she was so awesome that she created all kinds of warm feelings in him out of her own worthiness. Instead, He decided to love her despite her unworthiness. He decided to bind himself and make a covenant with her; to put her needs ahead of His own; to serve her and not himself; to give rather than receive; to be trustworthy and faithful when she was untrustworthy and faithless;  to unite himself with her so much that her needs became his needs, and her sins became his sins, and in order to keep the covenant, her death became his death, so that His life could be her life. It is this story that needs to set the framework within which we understand love and marriage. Once again, as in all things, the Gospel of a God who proves his own covenantal love for us in the death of Christ for sinners changes everything. (Rom 5:8)

Soli Deo Gloria