The doctrine of the moral law (WCF XIX)

May 7th, 2009

The doctrine of the moral law (or the moral will of God), as taught in the Westminster Confession, chapter XIX, is something that I have always affirmed. What is this doctrine? It is that there is an unchanging, universal standard of righteousness binding on all humankind from creation onward.

“What chapter XIX intends to affirm is that the moral law (not the Decalogue per se) continues to have binding authority over the new covenant believer. If you strip away the details and the imperfect formulations of chapter XIX, what the Confession is really getting at – the primary burden and thrust of that chapter taken as a whole – is to affirm the doctrine that there is an unchanging moral standard governing human behavior that is binding on all men, both believers and unbelievers. And that is a doctrinal affirmation that I am in wholehearted agreement with. As I’ve said, my preferred label is ‘the moral will of God,’ just to make it clear that we’re not equating it with the Decalogue. When it comes to the substantive issue itself, I agree with the doctrine of the moral law as an eternal standard of righteousness, rooted in God’s unchanging nature, and binding on all men. The Standards refer to that doctrine using the linguistic label ‘the moral law.’ I refer to that very same doctrine using the linguistic label, ‘the moral will of God.’” (Irons, Response to Charge Two, p. 20)

“I admit that I have scruples with some specific statements in chapter XIX of the Confession. In particular, I communicated to the presbytery a year and half before charges were ever brought against me, that I had scruples with XIX:2, where the Confession seems to equate the moral law and the Decalogue. I admit that I have also called into question the utility of the three-fold division of the Law as a means of determining what is still binding and what is not. While I admit making such criticisms of our Standards, I have never called into question the substantive theological affirmation of the Standards concerning the doctrine of the moral law. I have always been jealous to guard that doctrine against antinomianism.” (Floor presentation of my appeal, 2003 OPC GA)

Some theological and biblical considerations in support of the doctrine:

1. God’s unchanging holy and righteous character. If God’s character is unchanging, then the moral requirements that flow from his character must also be unchanging. If there is one Creator God, to whom all creatures are accountable, then the moral standards must be universal and not culturally relative.

2. The doctrine that humans are made in the image of God. Since humans are made in God’s image, they are obligated to reflect God’s holy and righteous character in their attitudes and behavior. Humans are like mirrors; the fall has cracked the mirror, so that it reflects God’s image in a distorted fashion. But the obligation to imitate and reflect God’s righteousness remains. Only in Christ is the image restored — imperfectly but progressively in this life; perfectly and permanently in the state of glory.

3. Romans 1:18-23, 32; 2:14-15. These passages in Paul are pretty convincing. Paul teaches that both Jews (who have access to God’s moral will imbedded in special revelation, i.e., the Mosaic law) and Gentiles (who, though they do not have the Mosaic law, know God’s moral will via natural revelation) are morally accountable and without excuse before God.

False Shame and Loyalty to Christ

April 16th, 2009

Matt Morgan (Berit Olam) recently posted a convicting quote from Herman Bavinck on our natural tendency to be ashamed of Christ. Read the whole thing, but here is a portion:

We need more courage to confess Christ, in an ungodly environment of sinners and mockers, than in the circle of relatives and friends, who together confess the truth … But in principle the resistance is the same all over. For the flesh, the world and Satan are always the same, and the greatest and strongest enemy that resists the confession of Christ, lives in our own heart. The forms in which the enemy operates may be different, but confessing the name of Christ always demands that we deny self and bear His cross. Whoever, from which circle he may come, when he will follow Jesus, must submit to insult and contempt.

… to become a Christian is to esteem the judgment of others for nothing, accepting the judgment of God upon ourselves and hoping in His grace. To confess Christ includes, that we lose ourselves and all that is ours, our name and our honour, our good and blood, our soul and our life. It is exactly this that is resisted by a sense of false shame. The desire to apparent self preservation, urges and drives men to resist the gospel with all their strength.

Bavinck uses the phrase “false shame” to refer to sinful shame, that is, the self-protecting fear that grips us because we crave the approval of men, causing us to be disloyal to Christ.

I would add one point that Bavinck does not mention. He deftly diagnoses the sinful psychology of “false shame,” but the temptation to it really cranks up and starts messing with your head when the people who are making us feel ashamed of Christ are people whose opinion ought to be taken seriously, namely, fellow Christians. Ordinarily, we should desire the approval of the church. Ordinarily, the church should be a help to us in being faithful and loyal to Christ. But because the church is a human institution run by fallen humans who are still subject to the noetic effects of sin and who too easily succumb to spiritual pride, even the church itself can become a source of “false shame” and a stumbling block to unwavering loyalty to Christ (ask Luther; ask anyone who had to leave a cult).

To quote Bavinck again:

to become a Christian is to esteem the judgment of others for nothing, accepting the judgment of God upon ourselves and hoping in His grace. To confess Christ includes, that we lose ourselves and all that is ours, our name and our honour, our good and blood, our soul and our life.

As Jesus said:

And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. (Luke 12:8-9 ESV)

And

If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. (John 12:47-48 ESV)

The Kingdom of God

April 9th, 2009

Check out this site, Two Kingdoms, by my friend Jonathan Goundry. See especially the April 6, 2009 podcast featuring a discussion of the kingdom of God by Gene Cook and Jonathan Goundry, pastors at Great Oak Church in Temecula, California. These Reformed Baptist brothers have done an excellent job of summarizing in 30 minutes Kline’s “big picture” panorama of the unfolding of the kingdom of God from creation to consummation. They score some excellent points against theonomy while showing the true, spiritual nature of the kingdom of God. Their discussion walks through a diagram that I created based on Kline’s lectures.

Michael Horton’s God of Promise

April 7th, 2009

Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006)

I wrote this review three years ago, right after the book came out in 2006. I hesitated to publish it because I like Mike Horton and am appreciative of his ministry, both in his writings and on the White Horse Inn. In writing this review, I am not in any way suggesting that Professor Horton’s book is not a useful contribution to covenant theology. My main concern is that Horton’s book is viewed by some as a lay-level intro to covenant theology from a Klinean perspective. While the book does show the influence of Kline’s thought at some critical junctures (especially the use of the suzerainty treaties and the republication thesis), there are also aspects of the book that fall short of presenting Kline’s full system.

As soon as I say that, I cringe. For why should Horton be obligated to present Kline’s full system? Nowhere in the book does he claim to be summarizing Kline’s covenant theology. He may in fact have some differences with Kline, for all I know — and that would be perfectly okay with me. Kline’s covenant theology is merely one man’s attempt to make systematic sense of the teaching of Scripture and is not the only viable option within the Reformed tradition, much less is it inspired or inerrant. But still, I have this general feeling that many lay-people may think that Horton’s book is at least compatible with Kline, and perhaps more than compatible, an actual attempt to summarize Kline. So I want to put forth this review, not because I have anything against Horton, but to make clear that Horton’s book is not a substitute for reading Kline’s work.

Most of my criticisms below are of the sort that are really irritating in book reviews, e.g., “The author didn’t say anything about topic x, which is really important to me, the reviewer. How dare the author fail to address my hobby horse!” I’m sure that if one were to ask Horton he would respond, “Well, I had a page limit; the book is for lay-people; I couldn’t deal with every issue; and see my four-volume systematic theology published by WJK for the details.” Fair enough, and I respect that. No book is complete; it is merely part of an ongoing conversation.

So, with those caveats out of the way, here’s the review as I wrote it three years ago.

————————–

For many years, there has been a need for an accessible introduction to covenant theology explaining and defending the traditional federal system. O. Palmer Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants was the closest to meeting this need. In many ways it is an admirable book, loaded with detailed exegesis in the original Hebrew and Greek. It was my first major introduction to covenant theology back when I was transitioning from Dispensationalism to covenant theology in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, as I later learned from Meredith Kline’s lectures at Westminster Seminary California (1992 to 1996), Robertson’s book is marred by modifications of the traditional federal system at critical points. Thus, I ordered Michael Horton’s latest book in the hope that it would fill the need for a summary of Kline’s covenant theology geared to a lay audience. Although Horton is certainly indebted to Kline at many points, and is thus closer to the mark than Robertson, in my opinion Horton’s contribution still falls short.

Horton begins his book in chapter one by distancing himself from approaches which attempt to reduce Reformed theology to a central dogma from which the rest of the system can supposedly be deduced. Rather than being a central dogma, Horton argues that covenant theology provides a web or architectural structure for contextualizing a whole gamut of doctrinal topics. When other doctrines are situated within this web or structure, clarity is brought to old problems and tensions. I am attracted to this idea as a proposal for doing theology. However, it has the disadvantage of changing the focus of the book from being an introduction to covenant theology. To be sure, the next four chapters (chs. 2-5) are focused on covenant theology. But in the last four chapters (chs. 6-9) the attention shifts to an examination of related doctrines from the perspective of the covenant motif. This shift in emphasis in the second half was regrettable in my opinion, since it chews up valuable space that could have been given to several critical topics in covenant theology that are inadequately addressed in the first half (see below).

In chapter two Horton summarizes the work of George Mendenhall, Delbert Hillers, and Meredith Kline. These Old Testament scholars of the 20th century drew attention to significant parallels between the Hittite suzerainty treaties and the biblical covenants. These Hittite treaties were tools of international diplomacy in the second half of the second millennium BC, in which a great king (or suzerain) established a relationship with a lesser king (or vassal). Horton sets out the main parts of these ancient treaties or covenants: the preamble, the historical prologue, the stipulations, the sanctions (blessings and curses), and the deposit of the treaty tablets in the temples of both parties. Horton also discusses the ceremony in which the treaty was ratified by the slaughtering of a sacrificial animal and the taking of an oath on the part of the vassal. This helpful chapter would be even more useful if accompanied by a chart outlining the parallels between the Hittite treaties and the biblical covenants.

Having demonstrated these parallels, Horton states that “God adapted the international treaty as the template for his relationship to creatures” (p. 29). This unqualified statement gives the impression that the covenant idea itself was inspired by the pagan treaties. However, I suspect that that many readers will be uncomfortable with this. When Kline taught the parallels between the Hittite treaties and the biblical covenants, he explained that the pagan covenants were a vestige of God’s original covenantal revelation at creation, in which God was revealed as the Great King (suzerain) over all of creation with Adam as God’s servant (vassal). The fall did not totally erase the memory of the creation covenant among the ungodly line that descended from Cain. It was preserved by common grace and rooted in the conscience. Thus, by using the treaty format to express his covenant with Israel, God was not borrowing from the pagans but drawing on the remnants of the creation order that had been preserved by common grace. I’m sure that Horton would agree with this, but it would have been helpful if he had spelled it out.

Chapter three is the most important chapter in the book and it is here that Horton’s central thesis becomes clear. The chapter’s title, “A Tale of Two Mothers,” is derived from Paul’s use of Sarah and Hagar as symbols of the contrast between the Abrahamic promise and the Mosaic law (Galatians 4:21-31). Horton uses this passage as a springboard to argue that there are two types of covenants in the Bible: (1) law covenants which are conditional and which employ the suzerainty treaty format discussed in the previous chapter; and (2) promise covenants which are unconditional and which are modeled on a different type of covenant called the royal grant. The classic example of the law covenant in Scripture is the Sinai covenant with its blessings and curses, and the promise of long life in the land of Canaan conditional upon Israel’s obedience. Examples of royal grants include the Abrahamic promise and the Davidic covenant, in which God made irrevocable promises to Abraham and David. Horton’s distinction between law covenants and promise covenants shows the strong influence of Meredith Kline on his thinking.

In chapter four, Horton deals with the covenant lawsuit found in the prophetical literature, in which Israel was confronted for its failures under the Mosaic covenant and warned that the impending curse (exile) was about to fall on the covenant breaking nation. There is also a positive side to the lawsuit, for the prophets not only brought a message of doom and gloom, but spoke of a spiritual restoration of Israel under a new covenant (e.g., Jeremiah 31). In this chapter Horton also surveys the controversy over whether the new covenant should be viewed as a “covenant” or a “testament.” He sides with the “covenant” view.

When we come to chapter five, the biggest flaws of this book come to light. Let me set the stage by explaining some background that Horton himself does not mention explicitly, although I sense that it is in the back of his mind. Many students of covenant theology have felt that there is a dissonance in covenant theology. On the one hand, we claim that the covenant motif does a better job of organizing Scripture than dispensations. After all, the Bible never explicitly mentions dispensations but it does mention covenants quite frequently. But on the other hand, there is a feeling of dissonance, because the covenants that we talk about in covenant or federal theology (the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace) are never explicitly mentioned in Scripture. The covenants that are explicitly mentioned in the Bible (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, New) play a surprisingly minor role in the Reformed creeds and in the standard Reformed systematic theologies. Thus, there is a need to show how the traditional federal system relates to the biblical covenants that are inductively drawn from Scripture. Unfortunately, in spite of his promising title for chapter five, “From Scripture to System: The Heart of Covenant Theology,” Horton doesn’t really connect the dots. Instead, he offers a rather traditional exposition of the three covenants (of redemption, of works, of grace), relying mostly on quotes from the standard Reformed creeds and dogmatic sources, with only a dash of exegesis thrown in. The covenant of works receives the most attention, presumably because it is currently the most contested of the three.

Another problem with chapter five is Horton’s treatment of the covenant of redemption. Horton defines the covenant of redemption as the eternal decree to save the elect in Christ. Of course, the decree is an important element of the covenant of redemption, but as a definition it is inadequate. One must go on to describe the crucial role of Christ as the second Adam who stands in a covenant of works with the Father on behalf of the elect. The way Kline would put it is this: there are in fact two covenants of works. There was the Creator’s covenant of works with the first Adam, which covenant was broken by Adam’s failure as God’s vassal under that covenant, resulting in the imputation of his sin to the human race. But there is another covenant of works, which actually precedes the Adamic covenant of works, but follows it in temporal execution: the Father’s covenant of works with the second Adam. In this covenant, Christ is God’s obedient vassal who successfully passes the test by his obedience unto death, resulting in the imputation of his righteousness to the elect. This is the covenant of redemption. Meredith Kline spends much effort in Kingdom Prologue and Glory in Our Midst attempting to demonstrate this understanding with painstaking exegesis. Kline’s brilliant contribution to Reformed federal theology on this point is not clearly presented in Horton’s book. To be fair, Horton does affirm that Christ fulfilled the covenant of creation (works) on behalf of the elect (pp. 87-9, 94, 106-8). But he doesn’t tie this explicitly to the covenant of redemption.

Another surprising lacuna in the book is that there is no exegesis of the famous two-Adams texts in Paul. In fact, as far as I could tell, there is only one sentence in which Romans 5 is cited (p. 89). Romans 5 is one of the strongest proof-texts for the covenant of redemption, that is, for a covenant of works between the Father and the Son parallel to the failed covenant of works between God and Adam.

Another disappointment comes near the end of chapter five. Horton gives surprisingly short shrift to the covenant of grace. Horton states, “Since most of what follows in this work concentrates on the covenant of grace, I will let this brief account suffice” (p. 107). However, most of what follows in subsequent chapters, while it may relate to the covenant of grace, still fails to provide substantial coverage of the key issues that any introduction to covenant theology must address. For example, the doctrine of justification is mentioned here and there, but there is no detailed explanation of how justification relates to the Father’s covenant of works with the second Adam. Another issue that Horton only briefly touches upon is the role of faith, repentance, and obedience in the covenant of grace. This cluster of topics has been debated since the Norman Shepherd controversy in the 1980s and continues to be a big issue in Reformed circles. Witness the lively debate ca. 2002-2007 over “the Federal Vision,” which repeats many of Shepherd’s errors and adds some of its own. Perhaps Horton wanted to keep the book positive and avoid polemics. I can appreciate that desire. Yet it is odd that he would avoid the elephant in the room.

As I mentioned earlier, the remaining four chapters are not directly pertinent to the exposition of federal theology but deal with related doctrines from the perspective of the covenant motif. Chapter six deals with common grace and provides a much-needed voice of sanity in the current political climate in the United States. Chapter seven is a brief chapter that answers the charge of “supercessionism,” a charge leveled by both Dispensationalists and liberal theologians against covenant theology. Chapter eight deals with the sacraments. When dealing with circumcision and baptism, Horton relies heavily on Kline’s work, By Oath Consigned (although in the footnotes it is incorrectly cited as The Structure of Biblical Authority). Finally, in chapter nine, Horton deals with the role of the law in the Christian life. He argues for the traditional three-fold division of the Mosaic Law into moral, civil, and ceremonial, and for the traditional three uses of the law, including the third use of the moral law as a guide for holy living.

For all of its weaknesses, God of Promise is valuable primarily for its defense of the important concept that the Mosaic covenant was a republication of the Adamic covenant of works. This view was the standard position of most covenant theologians prior to the rise of Dispensationalism. Due to the Reformed reaction against Dispensationalism in the 20th century, the republication thesis has fallen out of favor among Reformed scholars, aside from those influenced by Kline such as Westminster Seminary California. [See the recent book edited by Bryan Estelle, The Law is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant.] The fear of many contemporary Reformed theologians is that this view sounds like two ways of salvation, as if Israel is saved by works and the church is saved by grace. But Horton makes clear that this is a misunderstanding of the republication thesis. As Kline argued, the republication of the Adamic covenant of works only applies to the typological layer of Israel’s national, theocratic life, not to individual salvation which is always by grace alone through faith alone. The underlying Abrahamic covenant, which is an unconditional guarantee of blessing, is never abrogated, even during the Mosaic theocracy. Nevertheless, Horton shows that there is no escaping the fact that the Mosaic law and the Abrahamic promise are based on distinct principles of inheritance that stand in tension with one another. This tension drives the plot-line of redemptive history as it moves from promise to fulfillment. This is the biblical-theological basis for the law-gospel contrast taught by Paul in Romans and Galatians.

In sum, while making helpful contributions on a number of issues in the area of covenant theology, God of Promise has too many gaps at critical points to serve as a well-rounded introduction to covenant theology. But as long as one reads Horton’s book with an awareness of its limitations, it can be studied with profit.

Jesus, the revealer of the Father

April 5th, 2009

In his high priestly prayer for his disciples, just before he went to the cross, Jesus prayed, “O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:25-26 ESV).

These words are an excellent summary of the mission of Jesus: he came to make known the Father. Jesus reveals the Father to us. He does so not merely in an intellectual way, as if we just needed more facts or information about the Father. Jesus reveals the Fatherly character and heart of God, and he does so in a way that communicates experiential knowledge, not just head knowledge. Knowing God as Father means that the love that eternally existed between the Father and the Son is experienced and enjoyed by us as well, that is, we not only are loved by God the Father, but we feel loved by him.

What an awesome privilege! We know God is almighty and holy. We know God sits enthroned with winged seraphim crying out “holy, holy, holy” day and night before him in the heavenly temple. He is the high and lofty one, clothed in such unapproachable light, that no one has seen God as he is, face-to-face. In view of the seeming distance of God, what an incredible blessing that we should be able to crawl up on the knees of this holy God with the freedom of children and call him Father.

God’s only begotten Son, who is at his side, who is the exact representation of God’s being, has come and has revealed God to be not only his God and his Father, but our God and our Father. “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 NASB). “For from the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (John 1:16 NIV). And the greatest blessing of all is that we have come to know the Father. For this is eternal life, that we may know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent (John 17:3).

We should be both Theocentric and Christocentric. Some Christians are more Theocentric, focusing, for example, on the holiness and majesty of God and the need for awe and reverence of God. I have been in churches like this, where Christ and the cross were hardly mentioned, and the focus was always on “God” in a somewhat authoritarian way. There is a one-sided emphasis that borders on Unitarianism. But other Christians (myself included) tend to be so Christocentric that the Theocentric dimension is often overshadowed. We dwell on the love of Christ, his atoning death, and the forgiveness of sins, but we don’t think as much as we ought about the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But we should be both Christocentric and Theocentric, albeit in the right order: we should be Christocentric with the aim of coming through Christ to the Father. If I may coin a term, we should be Theo-(through-Christ)-ocentric.

How does the Spirit fit into this? I remember hearing a recording of a sermon by J. I. Packer in which he likened the Spirit’s role to that of a spotlight illuminating a great building at night. The Spirit doesn’t draw attention to himself; his role is to draw our attention to and kindle our affections for Christ.

Some practical ways we can more fully enjoy our relationship with the Father:

(1) We should read the Gospels more, for it is as we see Jesus in his ministry of healing the sick and seeking the lost, and as we respond to this Jesus revealed in the Gospels, that we come to know, experience, enjoy and rest in the love of God as our Father through Christ. As we get to know Jesus better, we get to know God the Father better. Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9 ESV).

(2) We should venture to make bolder requests in prayer. Our Savior said to his disciples in the upper room, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you … Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:23-24 ESV). After all, if God is our Father, and if he loves us as fathers love their children, then he will delight to satisfy the holy desires of our heart. “Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? … If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:9-11 ESV).

(3) Those of us who are fathers should think of ways that we can better model the Fatherly love of God to our children, not only for the benefit of our children, but for our own benefit. “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him” (Ps 103:13 ESV). The way we discipline our children should mirror the discipline of the heavenly Father (Heb 12:3-11). We should never discipline them in anger, but because we love them and want them to grow in maturity. “The Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Heb 12:6, ESV, quoting Prov 3:12; cp. Rev 3:19).

The imputation of the righteousness of Christ

March 10th, 2009

What is the righteousness that is imputed to the elect in justification?

Option 1

Some say it the righteousness of Jesus himself, that is, his lifelong moral perfection and obedience to the law. There are good arguments for this view.

First, it is not enough that we have a substitute who bears the curse brought upon us for our violation of the moral law; we also need a substitute who obeys the moral law in our place in order that we might be “righteous before God” (Rom 2:13) and thus have a positive right and title to eternal life (”justification that brings life,” Rom 5:18 [NIV]).

Second, Paul relies heavily on Gen 15:6 for his teaching on justification (Rom 4:3-11; Gal 3:6), focusing particularly on the verb “it was reckoned” and the noun “righteousness” (ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην). Note that Paul changes the passive into the active form*, supplies the implicit subject (”God”) and paraphrases it as “God credits righteousness” (ὁ θεὸς λογίζεται δικαιοσύνην, Rom 4:6). [*Technically, it is middle in form, but active in meaning.] Paul also speaks of “the righteousness of/from God” (Rom 1:17; 3:21-22; 2 Cor 5:21; Phil 3:9), “the righteousness of faith” (Rom 4:13; 9:30; 10:6) and “the free gift of righteousness” (Rom 5:17). This language of “righteousness” seems to indicate that in Christ we have something more than the forgiveness of sins.

Third, the Adam-Christ typology of Rom 5:12-21 and 1 Cor 15:20-22, 45 seems to suggest that the obedience that Adam failed to render to God as the natural and federal head of the human race has now been supplied by the Second Adam. Where Adam disobeyed and brought condemnation and death upon his seed, Christ has obeyed and brought justification and life to his “seed,” that is, all those who are “in Christ” (1 Cor 15:22) or who “belong to Christ” (1 Cor 15:23).

Option 2

However, when asked, “What is the righteousness that is imputed to the elect in justification?” others answer differently. They say it is a righteous status that God legally confers on (or imputes to) the believer on the basis of the atonement, with the moral perfection of Christ as the necessary precondition qualifying him to offer himself as a sacrifice. There are good arguments for this view as well.

First, Paul never explicitly says that the righteousness of Christ, or his lifelong perfection and obedience to the moral law, is imputed to the elect.

Second, by contrast, Paul does repeatedly say that we are justified “by his blood” (Rom 5:9), “by the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10), that righteousness comes through the cross (Gal 2:21) and resurrection (Rom 4:25), and so on. The passages that mention Christ’s obedience (Rom 5:19; Phil 2:8; Heb 5:8) are probably referring to the obedience of Christ in going to the cross, as the immediate context suggests (e.g., “one act of righteousness,” Rom 5:18; “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” Phil 2:8; “he learned obedience through what he suffered,” Heb 5:8).

Third, the passages which speak of Christ’s sinlessness explicitly recall the Levitical requirement that a sacrificial animal must be “without blemish” before it can be sacrificed (Heb 9:14; 1 Pet 1:19), thus indicating that the sinlessness of Christ was what qualified him to be the perfect and final sacrifice for sin, not that his sinlessness is imputed to our account.

The truth in both options

Both options are credible. All of the above arguments are weighty in my mind. One set of arguments cannot be easily dismissed or suppressed in favor of the other set.

To begin with, we cannot deny the force of the arguments in support of Option 2. Just stand back and take a look at the whole teaching of Scripture. The emphasis is not on Christ’s own moral perfection and sinlessness being imputed to the elect; the emphasis is on the atoning death of Christ. That is so obvious it hardly needs to be stated. What is the theme of the saints in heaven? Worthy is the Lamb that was slain! What is Paul’s boast? That he determines to know nothing except Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2; cp. Gal 6:14). The fact that Jesus was morally perfect is clearly taught in the Scriptures, but it is not the heart-beat of the church’s worship. It is hardly mentioned when the New Testament explains the redemptive work of Christ. The repeated formula is that “Christ died for our sins.” The resurrection is also sometimes mentioned, indicating that God’s verdict of judgment against Christ has been reversed, thus indicating that the judgment against us (borne by Christ) has been accepted. But the emphasis is on the saving power of the death of Christ.

Now, lest anyone think I have abandoned the traditional doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, let me say that we also cannot ignore the arguments in support of Option 1. It is not enough to have our bad record expunged; we also need a positive righteousness in the sight of God if we are to have a right and title to eternal life. This is Paul’s particular contribution to the New Testament interpretation of Christ’s atoning death. Why does Paul repeatedly use the language of “righteousness” and “justification” (which, remember, is merely the verb form, meaning “to declare and treat someone as righteous”) if he merely wanted to say that through Christ’s death our sins are forgiven? The New Testament writers know how to speak of “forgiveness” when they want to, using words like ἄφεσις and its cognates. Even Paul speaks of forgiveness as part of justification in Rom 4:7-8, but he does not reduce justification to forgiveness. His three-point outline of the gospel is: (1) God demands righteousness (Rom 2:13); (2) tragically, because of Adam’s sin, there is none righteous, no not one (Rom 3:10-20); (3) but now, apart from our moral efforts, a supernatural righteousness from God has been revealed in the cross of Christ, received as a gift, by faith alone (Rom 3:21-26). The gospel is that we are “righteous” before God, not by works, but by faith (Rom 1:16-17; Hab 2:4). This, for Paul, is something greater than God not counting our sins against us.

How, then, do we resolve the dilemma?

I believe the best resolution to the dilemma is to define the righteousness of Christ in a covenantal context. The righteousness that is imputed to us is Christ’s obedience to the point of death (Phil 2:8; Rom 5:17-19) within the context of the pactum salutis or covenant of redemption. The obedience of Christ is not a separate phase of Christ’s life prior to his death but the totality of Christ’s voluntary submission to the Father’s will, beginning with his incarnation and humiliation, and climaxing in his act of laying down his life for us on the cross. Since this obedience took place within the context of a covenant (incidentally, the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son was a covenant of works for Christ), the obedience of Christ to the point of death is acknowledged and rewarded by the Father, thus constituting a covenantal “righteousness” that is then imputed to the elect. So it is not the moral perfection or obedience of Christ itself that is imputed, but the righteousness that arises from the Father’s recognition of the Son’s fulfillment of the terms of the pactum salutis. But since the Son’s fulfillment of the pactum salutis included his lifelong keeping of the moral law, this too is included in the obedience of Christ, not merely as that which qualified him to be the final sacrifice for sins, but neither simply as the righteousness imputed to us, as if it were a straightforward transfer from one bank account to another. Rather, it is the total obedience of Christ, from the incarnation to the cross, that fulfills the covenant and which, with the Father’s approval and vindication, achieves a covenantal status of “righteousness” that is imputed to the elect in justification.

I would suggest that it is precisely because of the Father’s role in sending the Son on his mission as the Second Adam, as well as the Father’s role of recognizing, approving, vindicating, and rewarding Christ’s obedience once his mission was completed (the reward being granted at the resurrection and exaltation of Christ), that the righteousness that is imputed to the elect is not called “the righteousness of Christ” but “the righteousness of God.” My covenantal interpretation also explains why Paul says that Christ “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). God’s act of vindicating Christ played a necessary role in constituting the covenantal righteousness that is now reckoned to our account by grace.

Unidentified Scripture quotes are from the ESV.

The loneliness of discipleship

March 9th, 2009

I would like to recommend this thoughtful piece by Wesley Hill, “A Few Like You”: Will the Church be the Church for Homosexual Christians?

I am drawn to these haunting confessions of Auden’s because I, too, am a homosexual Christian. Since puberty, I’ve been conscious of an exclusive attraction to persons of my own sex. Though I have never been in a gay relationship as Auden was, I have also never experienced the “healing” or transformation of my sexual orientation that some formerly gay Christians profess to have received. But I remain a Christian, a follower of Jesus. And, like Auden, I accept the Christian teaching that homosexuality is a tragic sign that things are “not the way they’re supposed to be.” Reading New Testament texts like Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 through the lens of time-honored Christian reflection on the meaning and purpose of marriage between a man and a woman, I find myself—much as I might wish things to be otherwise—compelled to abstain from homosexual practice.

Wesley’s next sentence is painful to read: “As a result, I feel, more often than not, desperately lonely.” While the encouragement, support, and love of the body of Christ can never truly alleviate the constant psychic pain involved in such costly discipleship, I do wish that the body of Christ did a better job of reaching out in love to brothers like Wesley. Are not the righteousness robes of Christ sufficient for all Christians who strive to follow Christ in holiness, in spite of their struggles and regardless of their sexual orientation? I do not regard my struggles to walk in sexual purity as a heterosexual as any different (morally) from the struggles of the homosexual Christian. The moral standard of chastity is the same for both of us, the remnants of indwelling sin are the same for both of us, and - here’s the best part - the awesome power of the imputed righteousness of Christ is the same for both of us.

See also this article by my wife, Calvinists, Pelagians and Homosexuality.

And my paper, What I Believe About Homosexuality.

Hodge on Baptismal Regeneration

March 6th, 2009

Sorry for not posting for so long. I had technical difficulties with WordPress last month.

Anyway, I found a good quote by Charles Hodge on baptismal regeneration I thought I’d pass along:

The doctrine of baptismal regeneration is not only repudiated by all the Reformed Confessions, but, what perhaps, will to many minds be more convincing, it is impossible to reconcile the doctrine with their theology. Every one knows that the Reformed Churches adopted the theological system of Augustin. They all taught that none are born of the Spirit but those who are finally saved. If a man is called (regenerated,) he is justified; and if justified, he is glorified. There is no such thing, according to their doctrine, as falling from grace. If the Reformed therefore believed that all who are baptized are vitally united to Christ, and regenerated by the Holy Ghost, then they held that all the baptized are saved. They assuredly did not hold the latter, and therefore it is no less certain that they did not hold the former. It is impossible for a man to be a Calvinist, and believe the doctrine of baptismal regeneration.

From his essay, “The Church Membership of Infants,” The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 30.2 (April 1858): 382-83.

Seyoon Kim, Christ and Caesar - review, pt. 4

February 9th, 2009

As I said in my previous post, I have some reservations about Seyoon Kim’s argument that we can go where the NT authors themselves did not go. Even though Paul and Luke refrained from extending the implications of the exaltation of Christ into the political realm, we can do so, according to Kim. He writes:

It is … necessary to recognize that in many Western and non-Western countries our changed situation demands a more active Christian engagement in political processes than Paul and Luke exemplify. We have pointed out that both in Paul and Luke an imminent eschatology and political realism played their parts, along with other factors, in discouraging them from thinking about the present materialization of God’s reign or Christ’s Lordship in the political sphere … But most Christians today no longer feel the pressure of an imminent eschatology so greatly, and they therefore naturally are concerned about the present materialization of God’s reign or Christ’s Lordship, however tentative it may be … These … new factors make us free from the inhibition that an imminent eschatology and political realism laid on Paul and Luke. So we should actively seek what changes need to be brought about in the political sphere in obedience to Christ’s Lordship and thus help materialize the redemption of the Kingdom of God politically as well in other spheres of existence. (p. 201)

I disagree with this approach for at least two reasons.

First, I think Kim fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the eschatological context of the NT’s view of politics. For Kim, both Paul and Luke view the eschaton as imminent; therefore, they simply lack any interest in politics. We, on the other hand, “no longer feel the pressure of an imminent eschatology so greatly,” so we are free to develop the political dimension of the gospel. But this is to fundamentally misunderstand the eschatological position of the NT writers. It is not the timing of the eschaton but the nature of the eschaton that conditions their stance toward political issues. If the eschaton is going to bring about a radical change in the conditions of life such that the glory of the age to come totally transcends our present existence, then it matters little whether they viewed the eschaton as imminent (within their lifetime) or as far off in the future. The eschatological state, for the New Testament writers, is not continuous with the present state. Paul says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor 15:50). The eschatological state will be characterized by a glorified creation and glorified bodies to inhabit that glorified creation. The glorified state is one of incorruption and immortality. It is not merely the eternal continuation of our present fleshly state. Thus, for the New Testament writers, political questions, tied as they are to the fleshly state of this passing age, are necessarily secondary in importance. Furthermore, as a part of the fleshly state, political arrangements are not capable of being transformed or taken up into the state of glory, whether in its “already” state (experienced proleptically by the indwelling of the living Christ through his Spirit) or its “not yet” form (the glorified creation/body).
 
Second, I do not understand what Kim means by “the materialization of Christ’s Lordship” or “materializing the redemption of the Kingdom of God politically.” These sound like nice words, but what do they mean in practical terms? For those on the left it means increasing government funding for social welfare for the poor. Others on the left would say it means ending war in some sort of commitment to pacifism. Those on the right would say it means banning abortion, or having the constitution amended to exclude same-sex marriage, or reducing the size of government and government controls on the free market. What Kim concretely has in mind is left unstated. A related problem is that, even if we were to agree on a specific agenda, how do these things relate to Christ’s Lordship or the redemption of the Kingdom of God? In other words, why should any of the above items, left or right, be viewed in such exalted spiritual terms, as the materialization of the reign of Christ? In my view, the above policies can be debated pro and con, and perhaps some are pragmatically better for society than others, but none are distinctively Christian, and certainly they should not be characterized as the political materialization of the kingdom of God.

But I still have great appreciation for Kim’s book, particularly in the two main sections dealing with Paul and Luke-Acts. Although I am skeptical of his brief thoughts in “Some Implications for Today,” Kim raises some excellent critical doubts about the methodology and exegesis of counter-imperial reading(s) of the New Testament.

Seyoon Kim, Christ and Caesar - review, pt. 3

February 3rd, 2009

This is my third post in my series of posts reviewing Kim’s new book. The first two posts are available here and here. I plan to have one more post where I will interact with his final chapter, “Some Implications for Today.” Although I appreciate the substance of the book, in the final chapters he goes in a direction where I have some reservations.

Part 2:  Luke-Acts

Part 1 of Kim’s book was devoted to Paul’s view of the Roman Empire. Now, in Part 2, Kim addresses the issue of Luke’s view of the Roman Empire. He sets out two seemingly contradictory lines of evidence in Luke-Acts.

On the one hand, Luke in his 2-volume work is clearly at pains to show that both Jesus himself and the Jesus movement that continues in Acts, were politically innocuous and not a threat to Roman authority. In the case of Jesus himself, Luke shows that, even though the Jews accused Jesus, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king” (Luke 23:2), Pilate concluded after investigating that Jesus was not a revolutionary or an insurrectionist. He said to Jesus’ accusers: “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him” (Luke 23:14). In the case of the Jesus movement, Luke shows that Paul, like Jesus, was accused of being a political threat to Rome, “advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice” (Acts 16:19-21) and “acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7). And yet Luke also shows that the Roman magistrates consistently indicated that Paul was not guilty of the charges. See his favorable treatment at the hands of the magistrates of the Roman colony of Philippi (Acts 16:35-39); Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia (18:12-17); Porcius Festus, the governor of Judea (25:18, 25); and Herod Agrippa (26:30-32).

On the other hand, Luke also emphasizes that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah of Israel. He has the angel announce to Mary that Jesus will be the Son of the Most High, that the Lord God will give him the throne of David, and that his kingdom will last forever (Luke 1:32-33). This theme is continued in Acts which makes much of the fact that the risen Jesus has been exalted to God’s right hand as Messiah and Lord (Acts 2:29-36; cp. 4:25-28; 10:36; 13:23, 32-41; 15:17; etc.). In addition, the Messiahship of Jesus is presented as involving a liberation and redemption of Israel in fulfillment of the promises. Even more striking is the fact that Luke presents Jesus as the Davidic King against the backdrop of Caesar’s kingship in Luke 2:1 (“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered”) and 3:1 (“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea,” etc.). Although Luke only hints at it, he seems to be implying that Jesus is the true Lord and Redeemer, as opposed to Caesar.

So how do we reconcile these two themes in Luke-Acts? Why would the same work contain such tension within itself, making claims about Jesus that are bound to be misunderstood politically and yet at the same time attempting to make an apologia for Christianity to show that it is not a threat to the Roman political order?

Kim resolves the conundrum by arguing that, for Luke, the redemption that Jesus the Messiah brings is not an earthly deliverance from Roman oppression but deliverance from the kingdom of Satan. Kim shows how the various facets of Jesus ministry all indicate the spiritual nature of the kingdom that he brings. Jesus’ ministry of healings and casting out demons shows that the kingdom of Jesus is a spiritual kingdom involving deliverance from the power of sin, death, and Satan, not overthrow of the Roman government. And the spiritual ministry of Jesus is continued on the spiritual plane after Jesus’ death and resurrection through the apostles who are commissioned and empowered by the exalted Jesus and filled with his Spirit. Like Jesus, they heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim a spiritual kingdom consisting in liberation from the power of Satan, but not the overthrow of the Roman Empire.

Now, in Kim’s view, Luke’s spiritual conception of the kingdom that Christ brings does not mean that there are no implications for the here and now. The ascension of Christ and his present reign in and through the ministry of the church empowered by the Spirit have implications outside of the church and beyond the inner private sphere of the individual Christian’s faith. For Kim, Luke’s “ascension Christology” (as he calls it) can and ought to be materialized in the social, political, and physical spheres. However, Kim argues, Luke refrains from drawing out the materialization of the Lordship of Christ into the political arena due to various situational factors. In Luke’s theology, the political dimension of Christ’s lordship is implicit but postponed until the time of the restoration of all things (p. 156, citing Acts 3:20-21). In chapter 11, Kim lays out a variety of situational factors that may have contributed to Luke’s refraining from drawing out the here-and-now, political materialization of the reign of Christ:  his expectation of the imminent parousia of Christ; his political realism and relative appreciation for the benefits of the pax Romana, especially as providing an opportunity for the church to pursue its mission; Luke’s desire to present Christianity as compatible with allegiance to the Roman Empire; and so on.

As I said, in my final post I plan to explain my reservations with Kim’s final thoughts on “Some Implications for Today” (epilogue). However, my summary in the paragraph above already provides some hints of where my reservations lie. For Kim, the political materialization of the present lordship of Christ is implicit in Luke’s Christology, but Luke refrained from drawing out those implications due to certain situational factors that do not apply to us today. Therefore, we are free to draw out those implications ourselves, even though Luke himself did not. I’m not comfortable with this approach, and I’ll explain more in my concluding post.