Archive for the 'Theology' Category


stellman, roman catholicism, and reformed inadequacies

Jason Stellman, a fairly prominent American Reformed Presbyterian has resigned his position and the signs are he is river crossing to the Roman Catholic Church.  Why?

Well, no doubt the ‘why’ is multifaceted. There are, however, two reasons that loom large involving both the formal and material principles of the Reformation (sola scriptura and sola fide).

Stellman has clearly become increasingly disaffected by some Presbyterian teaching on justification that he had personally and enthusiastically defended   – a definition of justification that distanced it from godly living.  The flaws in his definition evidently  became too big to ignore – the theological gap between justification by faith and justification by works became just too wide in the face of Scripture creating cognitive dissonance. Sola fide must have a place for works.

Furthermore, high churchman that he is, Stellman increasingly struggled with sola scriptura (the Bible as ultimate authority) perhaps fueled by the way the Bible is given a wax nose by modern evangelicals, reformed and otherwise, that seems to mean it is not an authority to which one can turn for certainty; Stellman hopes to find this authority and certainty in the church of Rome (in tradition and presumably papal infallibility).  I hope, I am representing him fairly, if perhaps a little too simply.

My aim is not to critique Jason Stellman’s decision but to remark briefly on these two reasons for swimming Romewards, whether by Stellman or others.

soteriological weakness – an inadequate shaping of justification and sola fide

There is a quasi-lutheran view of justification currently popular in some Presbyterian Reformed enclaves in the States (in particular) that virtually cuts the umbilical cord between justification and sanctification.  Justification implies, for some, no moral imperative.  Indeed, any talk of self-effort is ridiculed as pietistic, legalistic or Romish; Jesus has done everything, including keeping the law for us and therefore talk of aspiring to holiness is simply humbug and a denial of grace.  Of course, this flies in the face of Scripture.  It is little wonder that some who subscribe to this deeply circumscribed view of justification eventually find the biblical evidence to hard to ignore and perhaps end up over-reacting.

Justification, properly understood, is not as in Presbyterian theology, Jesus’ imputed life and death: his death for our sins (passive righteousness) clearing our guilt augmented by his life of law-keeping (active righteousness) giving us a positive law-keeping righteousness.   The whole structure here is flawed.  Justification is not based on Jesus life and death but on his death and life, that is his resurrection life.

Justification involves me in his death.  In his death I die. I die for the only possible end for a sinner is death.  The soul that sins must die and this admits of no exceptions.  Thus I and my sins were nailed to the cross.  The penalty was enacted and God’s justice satisfied. The debt was paid in full.  My history as a man in Adam came to an end.

But justification does not end here.  Christ could not stay in death.  It would be unrighteous of God to leave in death someone who had glorified him in life and death as Jesus had.  God must vindicate Jesus.  He must declare him righteous, hence resurrection.  In resurrection, Christ is vindicated as righteous.  Men said he was unrighteous and deserved to die but God said he is righteous and must live, as must all who are united to him by faith.

I (we who believe) share in this resurrection verdict and standing, the righteous verdict of the Father.  I am raised with Christ and have a new life,  resurrection life.  Justification is ‘unto life’ (Roms 5:18).  Christ was raised ‘for our justification’ (Roms 4:25).  Thus justification is inextricably linked with a new life and new lifestyle.  We must never separate justification from life and righteous living.  Godly living, living in the resurrection life of Christ, is always the vindication of justification.  Justification is to a life no longer ruled by sin, Satan, the world, law and death, a justified life.

The tendency in some modern Reformed circles to make an absolute disjunction between justification and sanctification puts an intolerable strain on reading Scripture with integrity.  It is impossible to read Scripture and pooh-pooh aspirations after godliness as legalistic and an attack on justification.  Any honest believer cannot help but reckon with James’s assertion that a person is in some sense ‘justified by works’.  Our works affirm and approve our justification, they attest to it and to God’s righteous judgement.  Justifying faith produces justifying works, works that are the proof of life and bring reward on the day of judgement.

Skewed and imbalanced theologies of justification may create reactions that lead to Rome.  They seem to have done so with Stellman.

ecclesiological weakness – an inadequate shaping of authority and sola scriptura

Stellman asks the age-old question – where does authority lie, in Scripture or the church?  The allied question is which comes first the Word or the church?

The answer to the second should be easy – the Word comes first.  The Word always comes first for it is by his Word God creates all things.  Not only does creation come by the Word but new creation comes by the Word.  We are born ‘by the word of truth’ (Jn 1:18).  The church is the product of the word and not vice versa.

However, the question still remains, who declares what this word is?  Who has authority to declare and delineate truth?  Although in one sense the Word or Truth is self-authenticating and has its own authority in another sense we can quite happily say the church declares and delineates the Word.  The church is the repository of the truth.  But which church?  The apostolic church.  The NT church.  It was the apostles and prophets (instructed by the risen Christ through the Spirit) who were entrusted with declaring and defining the Word.  They laid the foundations – namely Jesus Christ.  Thus, when I look to the church for truth I look to them.  John affirms concerning his witness and that of the other apostles,

1John 4:6 (ESV)
We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 

The apostles taught and revealed, ‘that which was from the beginning’ and all who had the indwelling the Spirit of truth listened to them.  Thus I find in Scripture, the only apostolic and so divinely authoritative word we have.  I listen to John… and Peter… and Paul…. and Matthew… and James… and whatever aligns with them I accept as the spirit of truth and whatever contradicts them I reject as the spirit of error.

How am I, a mere ordinary believer competent to so discern?  Don’t I need a guide, an interpreter?  Indeed I do.  I am instructed by the Spirit of truth who indwells and teaches.

1John 2:20-27 (ESV)
But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth… Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us-eternal life.  I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie-just as it has taught you, abide in him. 

Stellman longs for certainty.  The only certainty lies in the apostolic word understood and interpreted by the indwelling Spirit.  The only message that has weight and divine imprimatur is ‘that which is from the beginning’.

In the great house of professing Christianity there is confusion and darkness mingled with that which is holy.  We should not be surprised at the chaos and that many who claim to follow Christ make a wax nose of Scripture and the apostolic teaching – such, after all,  was predicted by the Lord and his apostles (Matt 24:11; Acts 20:29; 2 Pet 2:1).  False prophets/teachers abound and deceive.   However, the way forward is not Rome, a church whose teaching cannot stand before the test of the apostolic word.  The answer is much more mundane and not terribly attractive or grandiose.  It is found in the instruction of the apostle Paul as he anticipates the apostasy of the visible church

2Tim 2:20-22 (ESV)
Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonourable, he will be a vessel for honourable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.  So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.

The way forward is to separate oneself from all that is evidently doctrinally and morally corrupt and fellowship with small groups of like-minded believers who ‘call upon the Lord from a pure heart”.  In the context of false teachers and churches which have corrupted the gospel Paul says,

2Tim 2:19 (ESV)
But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” 

God knows who is real and who is unreal.  We cannot pontificate on this.  Our responsibility is to keep ourselves distant from all iniquity whether of belief or behaviour and leave the question of whether those who embrace it are truly Christian to the Lord.

Stellman hopes to find in the Roman Church what belongs only to the early church (apostolic certainty).  He has not grasped that the ruin he finds in secession runs through Rome too.  Stellman, high churchman that he is, is making the tragic mistake of seeking certainty in an institution and in a structure rather than in the Spirit.  He is confusing a human organisation with a spiritual organism and is doomed to disappointment as he substitutes a defective view of justification for one which is more defective and seeks divine authority where it does not reside.

In the age of the Spirit, the Spirit is Christ’s vicar on earth (Jn 14:16).  He led the apostles into truth (Jn 14:16).  When believers hear the true Spirit-breathed apostolic word expounded the indwelling Spirit authorises it to their hearts and minds and ecclesia fellowship in the Spirit ensues (we are, after all, a spiritual temple or house offering up spiritual sacrifices).  We may fully trust the Spirit.  When we don’t, like Stellman we look for certainty elsewhere whether it be, like him, the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Roman Magisterium.


philosophy and christian faith

It was the Church Father Tertullian who famously asked, ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’  He meant that human philosophy has nothing in common with the revealed faith of Christianity.  In this he merely echoed the sentiments of the apostle Paul some 150 years previously.

The Colossian church was plagued by a heresy that was a hydran mixture of philosophy (human wisdom) mysticism (human spirituality) and Judaism (human religiosity).  Paul writes to the church to attack this hydra’s three malevolent heads.  The first of these is philosophy.  Paul is adamant that human philosophy has no place in Christian faith.

Col 2:8-10 (ESV)
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.

This is the only direct reference to philosophy in Scripture and it is hardly positive.  Elsewhere Paul speaks pejoratively of the ‘wisdom of this world’ which presumably includes philosophy, especially as the wisdom he refers to is specifically Greek.

I find it strange that some commentators (by no means all) claim that Paul’s disparaging of ‘philosophy’ has no reference to Greek philosophy or philosophy generally, but merely to ideas current in C1 cults and mystery religions.   It may well be to these cults that Paul refers (though this is by no means certain), however, even if this is so, the ideas current in these cults were simply drawn from the wider philosophical milieu.  The theosophic (gnostic) speculation Paul denounces, that matter was intrinsically evil and therefore the body should be denied in aspiring to spiritual enlightenment,  has a clear straight line to the major Greek platonic philosophies that denigrated the material world associating it with lesser gods or demiurge.  Paul pulls the feet from this Hellenistic dualism when he says of Christ, ‘in him dwelt the fulness of the Godhead bodily‘; incarnation makes a mockery of platonic wisdom.

We should not doubt that Scripture does not look on human philosophies benignly.  They are part of the world that crucified Christ.  Pilate’s plaque above the cross was in Greek, as well as Latin and Aramaic; the cross is the moral measure of human wisdom.  Had the rulers of this world  true wisdom they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8).   God, in the cross, destroyed the wisdom of the wise (1 Cor 1:19).  He exposed it for the empty vain thing it is.  The Lord knows that the wisdom of the wise is futile (1 Cor 3:20). He revealed too its intrinsic animosity to himself since it indicts God’s wisdom in the cross as foolishness (1 Cor 1:22,23).  Human learning (in itself a good thing) is corrupt because it is the product of  a world hostile to God and blinded by the god of this world; can a bad tree produce good fruit?  Human wisdom springs from death and can only produce death; it arises from darkness and can only result in darkness.  It is little different from false religion.  It has no route to God and sheds no light on God.

Nowhere is the mind independent of God more obvious than in philosophical pursuit.  Philosophy is the pursuit of understanding (wisdom) apart from divine revelation.  The venture is from the outset rebellious folly destined to fail.  It assumes the capability of autonomous reason to arrive at truth and does not submit to God’s truth.   It is intellectual hubris.  Little wonder Paul associates philosophy with ‘vain deceit’.

And it is vain in both senses of the word (futile and self-regarding).  Ancient Greece with its extolling of human reason is considered the cradle of civilization.   The humanism that tells us ‘man is the centre of all things’  finds its philosophical roots there.  In human reason the ascent of man was believed to lie.  Philosophy and learning was and is considered refining and elevating.  Philosophy, it was claimed, enabled one to rise above the moral degeneracy of the age.  The trouble is the philosophers themselves all too often gave the lie to this.  They judged the morality of others yet did the same things themselves (Roms 2:1).  Moreover the philosophical assumption that matter was evil produced all kinds of lascivious behaviour.  Education makes clever people, not good people, and certainly not holy people.

Paul is clear, the only wisdom that elevates the human spirit above itself and empowers for godliness is the risen reigning Christ.  In him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (not in philosophy).  We are elevated and enriched when we set our minds on things above where Christ is (Col 3:1,2).  Neither Pythagoras,  Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Hume, Voltaire, Camus, nor whoever, is the wisdom of God: Christ alone is the wisdom of God.  None of these add a whit to him nor to what believers have in him: we are complete in Christ.  Philosophy does not commend, compliment or complete Christ; it corrupts Christ.  It flows from a different stream altogether.

This truth, however, is not  universally recognised.  Over the centuries Christians have argued whether philosophy and the Christian faith were friends or enemies.  Some like Tertullian rightly saw it as an enemy, others, like Augustine of Hippo, as a friend.  Where philosophy was treated as a friend syncretism and confusion  soon followed (Augustine tried to synthesize Greek and Hebrew thought). Why not make the scandal of the cross more agreeable to  the wise and great?  Why not engraft to the Galilean faith the common sense of Aristotle or the wisdom of Plato?  The Middle Ages show what a disaster such a venture was. Soon philosophy buried the gospel; human reasoning and biblical faith have nothing in common around which to unite so one must occlude the other.  Philosophy caters to human pride while the message of the cross crushes it.  Faith repudiates philosophy, not only as a rival but as an ally; it rests only on God’s Word; it accepts that Word as absolute and exclusive.  Yet today, our universities again side with Augustine and indeed go further.  Theology and philosophy are often the same faculty.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes in 2002,

In the last forty years, however, philosophers of religion have returned to the business of theorizing about many of the traditional doctrines of Christianity and have begun to apply the tools of contemporary philosophy in ways that are somewhat more eclectic than what was envisioned under the Augustinian or Thomistic models. In keeping with the recent academic trend, contemporary philosophers of religion have been unwilling to maintain hard and fast distinctions between the two disciplines. As a result, it is often difficult in reading recent work to distinguish what the philosophers are doing from what the theologians (and philosophers) of past centuries regarded as strictly within the theological domain. Indeed, philosophers and theologians alike are now coming to use the term “analytic theology” to refer to theological work that aims to explore and unpack theological doctrines in a way that draws on the resources, methods, and relevant literature of contemporary analytic philosophy. The use of this term reflects the heretofore largely unacknowledged reality that the sort of work now being done under the label “philosophical theology” is as much theology as it is philosophical.

This is profoundly worrying for the future.  It means all Christian theology is approached from a humanistic perspective and not as divine revelation; Athens has captured Jerusalem.  What kind of theological training will our best evangelical minds receive in our universities?  How far will evangelical colleges and seminaries eager for academic recognition and accreditation capitulate to this paradigm?  Does Evangelical theology (a theology submissive to revelation) have a future? I fear the collapse of faith will be profound. (See comment by John Frame here.)

Alongside this marriage, aiding and abetting, is the popular evangelical slogan that ‘all truth is God’s truth’.  Its roots are Augustinian though it was popularised in a book of the same title by Christian philosopher Arthur F Holmes.  As someone wrote of Holmes,

Throughout his writings and career, Holmes emphasized that, indeed, “all truth is God’s truth.” His desire was for Christians to not shy away from the difficult questions that may arise from whatever subject of academic study they choose. With a firm belief that any truth they find can be reconciled with their faith, Holmes challenged educators and Christians in academia to grapple with what they are interested in, noting that a strong faith can handle some turbulence while coming to a better understanding of God’s creation.’

However, Holmes’ statement, while from a philosophical perspective true is from a biblical perspective untrue.  It is untrue for its definition of truth is not biblical.  We should be clear that Scripture views truth as EXCLUSIVELY special revelation. God’s Word alone is truth.  Indeed, Christ alone is the truth.  He is not part of the truth but the whole.  There is no truth missing in Christ that needs supplemented by philosophy.

Further, truth, biblically considered, is unitary.  It is a whole.  Truth is either ‘truth’ or ‘the truth’, it is never ‘a truth’.  It is a revelation of things as they really are and as they are in relation to each other.  Thus Christ reveals God as he really is.  He reveals humanity as it really is (humanity’s true state is exposed at the cross).   But Scripture never calls the wisdom of the world ‘truth’, far less ‘the truth’.  Rather the wisdom of the world (whatever it may be) and the wisdom of God always stand in opposition.    In fact, the world is opposed to truth in its biblical sense.  In hatred, it crucified the one who spoke truth and was the embodiment of truth.  Jesus said,

John 8:42-47 (ESV)
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” 

The whole world lies in the evil one who is the father of lies; it loves lies and hates the truth.  It will not come to the light because its deeds are evil (Jn 3:19).  It cannot receive the Spirit because he is the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17).  Truth in Scripture is ever a spiritual reality, revealed to spiritual people by the Spirit.

1Cor 2:2-14 (ESV)
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.  Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”- these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.  The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

It is blasphemy to suggest that those who hate the truth can complete the truth that God himself declares He has already revealed in its completion in Christ through his Spirit.   The natural man receives not the things of God.  Only he that is of God hears God’s words (John 8:47). Philosophy and human learning give no spiritual insight, they cannot, they are ‘of the world not the Father’.  Mere factual knowledge that is true is not truth in any biblical sense of the word.  Holmes, in his bid to marry philosophy and faith deferred to a philosophical definition of truth rather than a biblical one.  This is a parable in itself; when united, philosophy will always trump revelation.

I understand why Holmes argued as he did.  He wished to make it easier for Christians to engage positively in the various disciplines of learning.  However, by adopting this ‘philosophical’ definition of truth (opposed to the revelatory definition) he fostered (unwittingly) an engagement with learning which is not nearly critical and suspicious enough.  I am by no means suggesting that Christians must not engage in the learning process or that they ought not study philosophy (see here for helpful advice for those who do).  Daniel was skilled in all the learning of Babylon. Paul was clearly well-educated.  Providentially, God in his goodness has allowed knowledge to flourish.  Developing human knowledge was always part of his creational intent (Prov 25:2). Thankfully, conscience prevents human reasoning and thinking degenerating as far as it may otherwise do (although fallen reason is always trying to neutralise conscience).     Human learning is valuable in many ways but only when we know its limits and its nature.  I am not suggesting that we despise knowledge.

What I am suggesting is that we must engage in education convinced of a clear divide between human learning and biblical truth.  We ought not to attempt to marry the two or blur distinctions. Nor should we consider human learning innocuous and value-free.  Its source insists otherwise.  We should approach it with our antennae well-attuned.  We should never be enthralled by it, beguiled by it, or in love with it; a critical mind and vigilance is vital. Christ, not human learning, is the object of the Christian’s love and captivation.  Christ, who is foolishness to the world, for the believer is the truth that elevates, frees, feeds, matures and thralls.

If our faith is philosophically-focussed rather than Christ-focussed we are losing touch with the head.  I have known a number of people who love Christian philosophy and apologetics  They enjoy debate, reflection, reasoning, and speculation.  They love Augustine or Thomas or Kierkegaard or Tillich or Lewis or Ellul or Schaeffer but sometimes it’s not clear they love Christ and what Paul calls ‘the truth as it is in Jesus’ (Eph 4:21).  Philosophy is not Christ and to love abstractions is not to love Christ; Christ is a person seated in heaven on whom the eyes of faith are fixed.

In conclusion, philosophically (wisdom-perspective-wise) our world aind its learnng is opposed to God and cannot be otherwise.  If anyone  thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.  Our faith is at every point an affront to human wisdom, is spiritually independent of it, and complete in Christ without it.   Philosophy belongs to the world not Christ.  Let Paul’s words, quoted at the commencement of this post, be the final word.

Col 2:8 (ESV)
See to it that no one takes you captive [kidnaps you] by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.


can calvinists and arminians church together?

Well, the short answer is that in the church to which I belong both have for many years.   Some in the church, if labelled, would be ‘moderate Calvinists’ and others ‘moderate Arminians’.  I suspect both are ‘moderate’ because the influence of the other has protected from extremes.  This does not mean there are no discussions  and exploring of differences, there are, sometimes ‘ardently’.  But we have never lost respect for each other and  differences have never surfaced in any aggravated way publicly.  We disagree, agreeably. Why is this?

I think a number of factors contribute to the Spirit enabling unity in the face of potentially divisive issues of faith.

recognising that unity of the faith is a goal and not a given in any church

A church is a body of believers who are united in the Spirit by belief in a common gospel.  Paul calls all believers to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:1).  Unity of life in the Spirit is the basis of all fellowship among God’s people.  It is the starting point.  Believers may be immature and muddle-headed about many things but through belief of the gospel they are one in Christ.  From this starting point a goal lies ahead – what Paul calls, ‘the unity of the faith’ (Eph 4:13).  This is an unity we are to ‘maintain’ (as with the Spirit) but a unity we should seek to ‘attain’ or ‘reach’ (4:13); the unity of life in the Spirit from which we start has as its goal a maturing in the ‘unity of the faith’ and as Paul says,

Eph 4:13-16 (ESV)
… of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. 

In other words, church allows for growth in understanding, wisdom and holiness.  It doesn’t insist we display this maturity right away.  It doesn’t demand we all think the same from the word go.  It doesn’t require signing up to a full blown theology as a basis for membership.  It allows that it may take many years, in fact, a lifetime, for the kind of maturing that is its goal.  One reason I am uncomfortable with Confessions of Faith is that they seem to demand ‘unity of faith’ as a starting point rather than an end point; a body of divinity to which one may hope new believers eventually arrive becomes a binding force on their conscience  from the beginning.   This allows little room for growth and development.  One must accept the whole system fairly early on or be out in the cold.  Worse, inevitably a confession, every confession, any confession, even a good confession, is narrower and more circumscribed than Scripture.  Its very purpose is to remove ambiguities, delimit and proscribe.

Thus, it is difficult if not impossible for a believer whose understanding is of an Arminian bent to accept the authority of a Calvinistic confession, and vice versa, though both will happily accept the authority of Scripture.   Believers, united by the same Spirit, members of the same body, find it impossible to share church fellowship because confessions insist on beliefs in certain areas that belong at best to a mature ‘unity of faith’ and even then involve tensions.  We should, in my view, trust the Holy Spirit through the teaching of the Word to guide the church into spiritual maturity in belief and behaviour.  After all, if the Lord does not build the house, then who can?

loathing stereotypical labels

I hate labels.  Labels divide.  Labels segregate.   Labels are all too often partisan and destructive.  Their purpose is generally to vilify or glorify and rarely to enlighten.  In fact they cannot enlighten.  They are inevitably caricatures.  They take rounded people and make of them flat and wooden images.   Labels do not define people, they diminish them and distort them.  And people’s views, if guided by Scripture, do not neatly fit into pre-packaged theologies, for the truth of Scripture is inevitably bigger than our systems and labels.  Labels impose and imply a theology, and even if it is a generally good theology it is inevitably a theology that demands more sophistication than is the basis for gospel unity in the Spirit.  Labels mean a theology that leaves other believers out in the cold; they create fences not fellowship.

The more we resist taking and giving labels then the easier it will be for ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Arminian’ to live together as fellow members of the body of Christ.

displaying some theological grace

Now I am aware in our postmodern age ‘theological grace’ can be abused.  Some want certainty where the Bible is silent and uncertainty where it clearly speaks.  I do not support this.  There are many areas where we must be firm and say ‘thus says the Lord’.  I am not by any means advocating a trampoline theology that can bounce in every direction that we please.  There is a faith ‘once and for all delivered to the saints’.  Having said this we must remember the firm words of Paul,

1Cor 8:2-3 (ESV)
If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 

We should all remember that our knowledge is limited.  And nowhere more so than before the inscrutability of God’s sovereignty working in and through the history of the world.  At the end of the day, each view must confess there are mysteries in this topic that none can answer.  This is because we are humans and not divine, men and not God.  It is our privilege to go as far as God reveals and no further.  We must leave some issues with God.  We must, in the final analysis, allow God to be God and simply trust where understanding is withheld (Roms 9:19-22; Job 38-42).  Humility about our understanding, especially here, is all too appropriate.

We should remember too that while knowledge is important, it is not all-important.  In fact, knowledge is not the truest criterion of Christian maturity of relationship with God, love is.  Knowledge that does not act in love simply ‘puffs up’ and is conceited.  Love is never conceited.  The knowledge that is mingled with love will not insist on its way.  It will not expect others to understand things exactly as we do, to cross our particular ‘t’s and dot our ‘i’s.  Love will bear with slow apprehension, even the misapprehension, of others.  It will welcome those that Christ has welcomed but not for the sake of an argument.  It will not despise the other who holds some of the recognised tensions of Scripture differently.  It will not judge, but leave all judgement to the Lord.  It will not seek to quarrel and debate over matters that are not clear-cut and not of the essence of the gospel (Roms 14).  It will not force its will and opinion but wait upon the Lord.  Truth exists to promote love not destroy it and where truth is used to bash believers we must ask whether what we are pressing is truth and certainly whether it is ‘spoken in love’.

speaking with grace and seasoned with salt

Much aggro can be avoided just by a little grace in how we say things.  Too many who wave a flag for one or other of these positions (Calvinist or Arminian) insist in force feeding them on others.  They use confrontationary and extreme terms to make their point.  They push debate to philosophical and logical conclusions that stretch Scripture and sometimes go beyond it.  They leave their opponent (that brother for whom Christ died) with no wriggle room for individual conscience.  We must distinguish between persuasion and coercion, between verbal appeal and verbal brow-beating.  We should work at presenting our views in ways that are honest but as palatable as possible.  We should judge how able our audience is to ‘hear’ and ‘receive’ what we wish to say.  We should aim to give as little offence as possible without compromising truth. Belligerent and bellicose Arminians and Calvinists do not defend truth they betray it.

listening with love

Do we listen with love and forbearance?  Do we make allowances for infelicities of language?  Do we make allowances for different presuppositions?  When my Calvinist/Arminian brother expresses a prayer in a way that doesn’t quite gel with my theology do I make allowances and simply mentally transpose where necessary?  Do I focus on the 95% that we share in common and refuse to get out of perspective the 5%  on which we differ?   Christian love and forbearance can cover a multitude of sins.  The reality is, when we do listen respectfully to each other and avoid unnecessary abrasion then we even begin to move towards each other.  Love and respect win over those who differ from us, often much more effectively than the force of argument.

recognising scripture’s differing perspectives

A great deal of the heat is taken out of the controversy when we recognise that Scripture works with two perspectives that need to be held in tandem and tension.  Some NT writers focus on God and his grace while others focus on man and his faith.  Now these are never presented in opposition.  Nor is one ever stressed to the exclusion of the other, however, in any one book, one position is normally principal and the other subordinate.  For example, in a books like Romans and Ephesians,  God’s grace and initiative in salvation is primary while faith though important is secondary.  In other books, such as Hebrews and the Catholic epistles,  the imperative of faith is primary and the grace of God is subordinate.

The issue is not the relative importance of each.  Nor is the issue (as some suggest) that some NT writers have Calvinistic leanings and others Arminian. What is written, is written by the Spirit of God and is unified truth.  It has dimensions and perspectives but no contradictions.  No, the differing perspective  or emphasis is due not to different theologies but to different pastoral concerns.  The pastoral purpose determines the theological perspective.  If, as in Romans, the pastoral purpose is the proclamation that God’s promised salvation has broken into the world uniting Jew and gentile in Christ then the emphasis will be on God’s initiative in grace.  Faith will be there and vital, but it will be subordinate to God’s activity in grace.  If, however, the pastoral issue is a potential failure in faith then the stress will be on the human need to persevere in faith drawing from all the grace of God in the gospel to do so.  In each case, to repeat, the pastoral problem determines the theological perspective.

It is always thus in Scripture.  Where the issue is the trustworthiness of God then God and his grace is to the fore.  Where the issue is the responsibility of man then man and his faith is centre stage.  The object determines the subject.

Now, I am not naive enough to think that recognising these differing perspectives eliminates every difficulty and brings immediate harmony between Calvinist and Arminian, far from it.  However, I do think it helps to ease many of the tensions.  Indeed, it seems to me, that if we recognise these two perspectives and give them full credit then many of the more contentious issues disappear.  The differences that remain belong more to the realms of systems and logic where we ought in humility and grace bear with each other.

In my view, if we work with these dual perspectives and live with the above principles of Christian love and forbearing we shall discover that our opponents (Calvinist or Arminian) miraculously morph from a demon with red glowing horns into my brother or sister in Christ, believers like us who by grace are being transformed into the image of Christ, fellow pilgrims to and fellow citizens of the Kingdom of  God.

Wouldn’t it be marvellous if this Christmas the ‘peace among men’ which the angels announced knew part of its realization in Calvinist and Arminian brothers and sisters in Christ sharing together the joy of church fellowship celebrating the birth of their common Saviour and Lord.


we are not simultaneously sinners and saints (2)

In the previous post on this topic, I endeavoured to demonstrate that the NT regularly presents believers as ‘saints’ and not ‘sinners'; who we are ‘in Christ’ and not what we were ‘in Adam’ is pressed as the way believers should think of themselves.  Sometimes this raises the protest, ‘but does not Paul speak of himself as a ‘sinner’ in 1 Timothy?’

The passage referred to is the following:

1Tim 1:12-17 (ESV)
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

At a cursory glance, this text appears to be Paul referring to himself, a believer, as a sinner.  After all, he uses a present tense (‘of whom I am chief’).  Now let me say, if Paul does describe himself, a believer, as a ‘sinner’,  I do not think this undermines the central thesis that Christians are saints not sinners and should view themselves as such.   We should look at the rule and not the exception to guide our theology.  If we build our thinking on a topic, biblical or otherwise, on the exception and ignore the rule we will soon find ourselves in trouble.

We must ask rather the purpose of the exception.  In this case the ‘exception’ is intended to inspire confidence in unbelievers that God’s grace can extend to them.  If God saved the chief of sinners (Paul) then no-one is beyond the pale of his mercy.  Now, if believers today describe themselves as ‘sinners’ for similar reasons, I doubt if any would object, certainly not I.  This post is not a wooden, blanket objection to Christians referring to themselves as  ‘sinners’.

Yet, the question is begged:  is the ‘exception’ really an exception?  I doubt if it is. In my view, when Paul terms himself ‘the chief of sinners’ he is so doing on the basis of what he was in his pre-conversion days and not his present life in Christ.

The present tense serves to emphasize that in Paul’s mind none has surpassed his wickedness. No-one has overtaken his distinction as the greatest sinner God has saved. He is certainly not saying that he thinks of himself as the chief of sinners on the basis of an assessment of his present Christian life: it is  an assessment based on his past life as a persecutor and blasphemer, a life so opposed to the gospel that it gives hope to all. Paul’s  life as a Christian would be no encouragement to the ungodly that they may find mercy, rather the opposite. Now, he recognises, the Lord judges him faithful, ‘ I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful…’. No, it is his pre-conversion life that gives hope to every sinner… if Paul acted as he did yet God showed him mercy there surely can be mercy for me. The chief, the most active, the most inveterate of enemies, was the best and most powerful of witnesses that the grace of God abounded over sin, and that the work of Christ was perfect to put it away.

And so the ‘exception’ is not as clear as some believe.

Why is ‘the rule’ important?

It is important, for if we regularly think of ourselves as sinners then we will live as sinners.  If my ‘faith-perspective’ tells me I am a sinner then it inevitably excuses sin; I am a ‘sinner’, that is what I am, therefore I should not be surprised if I sin, or dismayed by it, I am acting according to my nature.  To think of myself as a sinner simply puts me in bondage to sin.  For the word ‘sinner’ describes a state, a nature, or a condition.  The psychology is immensely damaging; give a dog a bad name…

This is why the NT is so vehement that believers are not sinners but saints.  Over and over again, Paul tells believers ‘this is what you once were… here is what you now are’.  He wants us to grasp the perspective of faith that we are God’s ‘holy ones’, his ‘set apart ones’.  We are ‘new creation’.  And his reason is blatant; it is that we live according to who we are.   Take an urchin and put him in a palace as a prince but keep telling him he is really an urchin and he will behave like an urchin for that is how he thinks of himself.  However, put an urchin in a palace as a prince and keep insisting he is a prince and must think and act like a prince and he will do so.   Who we believe we are affects how we think of ourselves and how we behave.  It’s hardly rocket science.

And so, repeatedly, Paul reminds believers of what they have become ‘in Christ’ as the rationale for godly living.  ‘How can you who have died to sin live any longer therein?’ (Roms 6:2). ‘ If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations?’ (Col 2:20). ‘Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self  with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.’ (Col 3:9). ‘If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.’ Col 3:1).

Is Paul asking us to believe a fiction?  Are we simply sinners trying to be saints?  No, a thousand times no.  Paul wants us to grasp that union with a dead, risen and glorified Christ in the Spirit, has made us an utterly new people.  We are no longer ‘in Adam’ but ‘in Christ’.  Our real identity is ‘new creation’.  As God looks at Christ in heaven he sees us too.  Christ glorified is our identity.  As Christ is, we are.  Beyond condemnation. Beyond sin.  Beyond accusation.  Beyond law.  Beyond this world.   And the present reality of this is conveyed to us by the indwelling Holy Spirit (who mediates the presence of Christ).  In his words to his disciples,

John 14:18-20 (ESV)
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

He came in the person of the Spirit, that the life he received in resurrection his followers may receive too (because I live [in resurrection] you also will live).  We share in the resurrection life of the risen Christ.  We share his position and power (Eph 1:15-23).  As he is so are we in this world (1 Jn 4:17)… ‘holy and without blame before God in love’ (Eph 1:4).  Our lives are hid with Christ in God (Col 3:3).  This is our true identity and position and by God’s grace we have all the resources in Christ (everything necessary for life and godliness) to be who we are.; not sinners but saints.


an amateur theologian

I’m an amateur theologian.  ‘Theologian’ isn’t the right word, too pretentious, but I can’t think of another at the moment.  Perhaps I should say, I am an amateur student of Scripture.  Or, an amateur searcher of the Word.   Anyway, the word I’m really interested in focussing on in this post is not ‘theologian’ but ‘amateur’.   It’s a word that smacks of inadequacy I guess.  I don’t mind that.  We are all  inadequate before the Word; if we don’t know this then we are in a dangerous place.  It is the Spirit who gives insight in spiritual realities (not the academy); the Spirit reveals spiritual truths to spiritual people (1 Cor 2:13).  If in our conceit we think we think we ‘know’ then we need to remember; ‘if anyone things he knows (thinks he is a professional) he knows nothing as he ought’ (1 Cor 8:1-2).

But the real reason why I am content to be an amateur is that an ‘amateur’ is a ‘lover’.  It is french for ‘lover of’ which in turn is derived from the latin ‘amatorem nom’.  I am happy to be a lover of Scripture.  If I am, I have fellowship with people of faith throughout history.

Ps 119:97-105 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​Oh how I love your law! ​​​​​​​It is my meditation all the day. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, ​​​​​​​for it is ever with me. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​I have more understanding than all my teachers, ​​​​​​​for your testimonies are my meditation. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​I understand more than the aged, ​​​​​​​for I keep your precepts. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​I hold back my feet from every evil way, ​​​​​​​in order to keep your word. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​I do not turn aside from your rules, ​​​​​​​for you have taught me. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​How sweet are your words to my taste, ​​​​​​​sweeter than honey to my mouth! ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Through your precepts I get understanding; ​​​​​​​therefore I hate every false way. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Your word is a lamp to my feet ​​​​​​​and a light to my path. ​​​

We ought never graduate from being,

1Pet 2:2-3 (ESV)
Like newborn infants, [who] long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it [we] may grow up into salvation- if indeed [we] have tasted that the Lord is good. 

To all amateur’s of the Word everywhere, every blessing.  God help us when we become mere professionals in the things of God.


we are not simultaneously sinners and saints (1)

One of the things you’ll notice that I keep banging on about in the blog is the need for us to see ourselves, we Christians, as God sees us.  That is, to see ourselves from the perspective of faith (faith is accepting all that God says, including what he says about us).  Christians reason all too often from what they perceive themselves as being to what they are.  They see they sin and thereforeregard themselves as sinners.  This is a mistake.  The Bible does not speak of us as sinners but as saints.

Some are willing to speak of themselves as saints but insist they are still sinners.  They cite Luther’s famous words, ‘simul justus et peccator‘ or ‘simultaneously justified and a sinner’, or, ‘both saint and sinner’.  You can even buy t-shirts with the slogan emblazoned.  Now, if Luther simply meant that although we are saints we still sin then that would be fine.  Perhaps he did.  However, he is not interpreted this way.  We are told that we must view ourselves as ‘sinners’ as well as ‘righteous’.

What is wrong with Christians thinking of themselves as ‘sinners’?  Well, firstly we should note, the Bible never does.  Repeatedly we are referred to as ‘saints’ but never as ‘sinners’.  In fact if we are justified in Christ we are quite explicitly said to be no longer sinners.  Take the following text, for example,

Rom 5:6-10 (ESV)
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person-though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to  die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

Do you observe the logic and the contrast involved?  Paul argues from the greater to the lesser in two interconnected ways.  Firstly if God loved us enough to give his Son in death to save us will he not continue to save us in Christ’s life in resurrection?  Secondly, if God loved us enough to save us while we were unloveable, ‘without strength… sinners… enemies’, then will he not love us and continue to save us now that we are no longer ‘without strength… sinners… enemies’?  For this is the clear implication.  Indeed, he clearly states we are no longer enemies (we are reconciled).

When the Bible describes someone as a ‘sinner’ it is describing a state, a condition, a standing, an order of being.  It is a description of humanity outside of Christ.  Words like,  ‘sinners… the unrighteous… enemies… aliens.. lawless… ungodly’ describe people who are not Christians.  They describe what Christians ‘once’ were but are no longer.

Notice in 1 Cor 6 unconverted people are described as ‘the unrighteous’.

1Cor 6:1 (ESV)
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?

The ‘unrighteous’ like the word ‘sinner’ is a designation for those who are unsaved.  In 1 Tim 1 Paul lists a variety of words to describe people outside of Christ.  These all stand in contradistinction to ‘the just’ by which he means believers. Notice the word ‘sinner’ is included in the list of those outside Christ.

1Tim 1:9-10 (ESV)
understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine,

Indeed in using the term ‘sinner’ for those who are not part of the people of God he is simply echoing the language of Jesus.  In the Sermon on the Mount, speaking to believers, he says

Luke 6:32-36 (ESV)
“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. 

For Jesus, ‘the righteous’ and ‘sinners’ are mutually exclusive groups.

Mark 2:17 (ESV)
And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “… I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” 

Luke 15:7 (ESV)
Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 

I quote these texts without discussing how one becomes ‘righteous’ but simply to observe that in Jesus thinking to be in one category means not being in the other; if one is ‘righteous’ then one is not a ‘sinner’.  Peter, the apostle, quoting the OT book of Proverbs, uses a similar taxonomy.

1Pet 4:18 (ESV)
And ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​“If the righteous is scarcely saved, ​​​​​​​what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” ​​​

Clearly, Jesus and the NT writers are using well established categories.  Paul explains how we belong to one of the two categories in Romans 5.

Rom 5:19 (ESV)
For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Here the wider framework of ‘sinner’ and ‘righteous’ (or saint) categories is revealed.   Those who belong to Adam are constituted sinners and those who belong to Christ are constituted ‘righteous’.   Do Christians belong to Adam?  Are Christians ‘in Adam’?  The consistent voice of Scripture is that we are no longer ‘in Adam’ but we are ‘in Christ’.  Indeed these are, like ‘sinner’ and ‘righteous’, mutually exclusive families.  Paul uses two parallel expressions that make this point.  One expression he uses is the ‘old man’ and the ‘new man’ (or ‘old self’ and ‘new self’).

Col 3:9-10 (ESV)
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

Eph 4:22-24 (Darby)
namely your having put off according to the former conversation the old man which corrupts itself according to the deceitful lusts; and being renewed in the spirit of your mind; and your having put on the new man, which according to God is created in truthful righteousness and holiness.

Again these are absolute categaories.  A similar absolute category distinction is ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’.  ‘Flesh’ is the nature of life in Adam (the old man) and ‘Spirit’ is the nature of life in Christ (the new man).  Again, as with Adam and Christ, we belong to either/or; to be ‘in the Spirit’ means to not be ‘in the flesh’.

Rom 8:9 (ESV)
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

These absolute category distinctions are expressed variously in Scripture.  For example, we either belong to darkness or light.

Eph 5:8-10 (ESV)
for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.

We are either in the Kingdom of darkness or the Kingdom of Christ.

Col 1:13 (ESV)
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,

We are either dead to God in sins or alive to God in Christ.

Eph 2:1-6 (ESV)
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins… and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.

Equally we either are dead to this world or alive in it.

Col 2:20 (ESV)
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations-

It should be clear by now that the categories are absolute.  We cannot speak of ourselves as simultaneously a sinner and a saint (or righteous)  any more than we can speak of ourselves as simultaneously an enemy and a friend or a hater of God and lover of God or opposed to God and for God or darkness and light.  These are mutually exclusive categories.  Each is the opposite of the other and opposed to the other (Cf. Gal 5:17).  And so, again and again, Scripture emphasises this change of estate. Christians are: in Christ and not in Adam; in the Spirit and not in the flesh; alive and not dead; righteous (a saint) and not a sinner.  This is not a point about which Scripture is unclear, ambivalent or indifferent rather it is crystal clear and forceful: if any man is in Christ he is a new creation, old things have passed away and everything has become new (2 Cor 5).  Language could scarcely be clearer or more insistent.  Luther’s maxim, however popular, is unhelpful and misleading; we are not simultaneously saints and sinners, we are saints and not sinners.

So, why does it matter?


luther and law

I have come to understand Luther’s view of Law as law= imperative.  This is  the view promulgated by many online lutherans and indeed by WestCal representatives.  Apparently it was not Luther’s view.  Jono Linebaugh has a very helpful and illuminating post on Tullian Tchividjian’s blog discussing Luther’s view of Law.  Well worth the read.  It seems to expose as myth the view that Luther taught all imperatives are ‘law’.  It can be found here.


using biblical language where possible

I often contend for the use of biblical language when possible instead of theologically constructed vocabulary.  To do so tends to clarity and avoids confusion and sometimes offence.  For example, instead of speaking of one ‘covenant of grace’, as Covenant theologians do, why not simply speak of God’s purpose or God’s plan.  Not only is this biblical but it is manifestly more accessible to those who are not privy to the Covenant Theology system, including the ordinary believer.  Unnecessary jargon tends to obscure truth rather than reveal it.

It is gratifying to note that John Calvin had similar concerns. Concerning the word ‘merit’ he writes in his institutes,

I wish that Christian writers had always exercised such restraint as not to take it into their heads to use terms foreign to Scripture that would produce great offence and very little fruit’ 

Institutes 3:15:2

Would that those who claim to be his true heirs heeded his advice.


letting god be god

Rom 9:14-24 (ESV)
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.  You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory- even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

The ultimate truth about God is that he is sovereign.  He acts according to his will and does all, according to his own wisdom, for his own glory.  He is glorified in the display of his power,wrath and mercy, all proclaiming his righteousness, and those who are wise and of faith bow before this and worship.  I repeat, he is God and so does as he wills.  Much could be said about this (including noting that in the text above the emphasis is on his willing to be compassionate), but whatever is said, the bottom revelatory line remains the same – God is God and is answerable to no-one, least of all you and me; he judges us we do not judge him.  God’s ultimate Godness is rooted in his sovereignty and nothing else (not even his love).

To deny God his sovereignty is to deny him his majesty.  It is to deny him his rights as God, the very essence of the sin and unrighteousness that provokes his just wrath (Roms 1: 18-24).  When God awakens us to his majesty, our sin becomes immediately obvious and desperately sinful, his judgements and wrath immediately just, and we throw ourselves upon him for mercy.

If we fail to grasp this is who God is, and a response in fear, awe and self-abasement, before him is absent, then we do not really know the God of the Bible and we will be susceptible to many of the destructive evangelical myths and monsters mentioned in the previous post.

If we are wise, we will ponder this text deeply, and believe.


imputed active obedience (IAO), a must or a misdirection? (12)

The intention of the last couple of posts (here and here) on this topic has been to demonstrate that the Bible does not support the reformed construct of IAO.  We have seen that the OT  knows nothing of a law-keeping life lived on behalf of another.  In the OT, when the law is broken only a blood sacrifice can atone (Hebs 9:22).  The gospels tell the same story.  Jesus indeed keeps the Law, but his obedience to Law is not the emphasize of the gospels.  The gospels’ gospel’ is Christ introducing the Kingdom of God (eternal life in John’s gospel) through his saving mission demonstrated in liberating works and words, his ransoming death, and his subsequent resurrection. There is simply no hint in the gospels that integral to the ‘good news’ is a life of law-keeping obedience conferred on others.

What of the rest of the NT?

The emphasis thus far is entirely consistent.  In unison the music of the NT celebrates  the death (not the life) of Christ as the basis of atonement.  Justification, redemption, reconciliation and acceptance with God are always on the basis of death.  Below are most of the NT texts that unpack the basis of acceptance with God.  I ask simply that you scan these verses and with honesty and integrity judge whether what they unpack is acceptance with God based on a law-keeping life imputed to others.  I recommend you read through the whole of the NT with the express purpose of inquiring whether such a theory is evidently one the NT champions.  I submit any such honest inquiry, free of presuppositions, will leave the dogma of IAO dead in the water.  I believe you will find, as the following texts reveal, that acceptance is never based on the merit of Christ’s life  imputed (that is his life lived on earth) and always on the value of his vicarious death and our union with him in his death and his subsequent resurrection.


What do the early apostles preach?  They did not preach in Acts a developed theology of atonement but they did focus on the mission, death and resurrection of Christ.  Peter’s message is typical:

Acts 2:22-24,28 (ESV)
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know- this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it… “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Notice, there is not a hint of vicarious law-keeping obedience, even to a Jewish audience.  The focus is squarely on messianic credentials of mighty works, the  designed death of Christ, his rejection by the people, and his subsequent resurrection.  Essentially the same message repeats itself in the early Acts (3:11-26; 4:7-12, 23-31; 5:29-31; 8:51-53).  In Ch 9 Philip meets a gentile (the Ethiopian eunuch) who is reading Isa 53 (the death of Christ) from which Peter preaches to him ‘the good news about Jesus’.  In Ch 10 the message Peter taught in Acts 2 is substantially repeated to Cornelius a gentile God-fearer (10:34-42).  The same message is taught by Paul (13:26-42).

Acts presents for belief a Messiah who has revealed his credentials in wonders and signs, who has died and risen again.  But what is entirely absent is a gospel of vicarious law-keeping righteousness.  The church of God has been purchased by blood (Acts 20:34-42) not law-works, even law-works by Christ.


Rom 3:21-26 (ESV)
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

I intend to consider this text in detail in a future post.  At the moment I want simply to note that God’s saving righteousness (and this is the key text in Romans and indeed the whole of Scripture on the topic) is located firmly in the redemptive and propitiatory death of Christ.  Of all places for Paul to have developed IAO this would be it, but there is not a scent; it is conspicuously absent. Note too, that the ‘righteousness’ discussed is specifically ‘God’s’ and not ‘Christ’s’.

Rom 4:24-25 (ESV)
…. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

Note again the focus on death.  Where justification is concerned in Romans, we are justified by grace (3:24), Christ’s blood (5:9), Christ’s resurrection (4:25), and our faith (5:1).  Never by his law-keeping life.

Rom 5:6-11 (ESV)
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person-though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die- but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

The death of Christ is again the focus of justification.  Notice ‘we shall be saved through his life‘.  On more than one occasion past reformed exegetes have employed this text in support of IAO (John Owen, defending IAO, interpreted it,  ‘we are saved by that perfect Obedience which in his life he yielded to the Law of God’).  It shows something of their desperation (or poor exegetical skills) for the expression clearly refers to Christ’s present life in resurrection not his life on earth.  Notice it is those already reconciled by his death who are saved by his life.  The expression is an evident allusion to ‘raised for our justification’ (4:25) and Christ’s present King-priest intercession at the right hand of God for his own (Roms 8:33,34)

Rom 5:18-19 (ESV)
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Perhaps the favourite text used to ‘justify’ IAO.  Again, I hope to consider it more fully in a later post.  Note: a) the text must be considered in the context of all that has gone before and all that has gone before has located the death of Christ as the place of justification b) it is ‘one act of righteousness’ paralleling Adam’s ‘one trespass’.  The whole section parallels two acts not two lives c) one man’s ‘disobedience’ refers back to the ‘one trespass’ and ‘one man’ obedience’ refers back to the ‘one act of obedience’.  Whether your context is immediate or the whole of Romans the conclusion is the same; the propitiatory death of Christ is the place of ‘justification and life’.

Rom 8:3-4 (ESV)
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 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.

Condemned sin ‘in the flesh’.  Commentators agree ‘in the flesh’ is a reference to the condemnation of sin (not sins) in the death of Christ.  Christ’s death was the end of sin (as it was the end of Satan, death, and Law).

Rom 8:33-34 (ESV)
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died-more than that, who was raised-who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

Notice the key twin focus of death and resurrection in the matter of justification.  Accusation and condemnation cannot stand before these and a God who has determined to justify in the light of these.  But no mention of a law-keeping life.


Paul begins and ends 1 Corinthians with a statement about his gospel.  In neither case is the focus the law-keeping life of Christ but his death and resurrection.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

1Cor 15:3-6,11 (ESV)
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep… Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

In the Second letter we read

2Cor 5:18-21 (ESV)
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

This text is of course one that some believe teaches Christ’s righteous life is imputed to us.  Now I intend to examine the four or five verses that it is said teach IAO in a later post but I simply point out two things at the moment.  One, the text says nothing about Christ being our righteousness rather it says we are in some sense, through Christ, God’s righteousness.  More of this later.  Two, and this is important, the focus of the text is the clearly the death of Christ.  It is his ‘made sin’ death, nothing more and nothing less that enables us to become ‘the righteousness of God in him’.  There is absolutely nothing here about imputed active law-keeping obedience.  It is a foreign idea that has to be imported into the text.


Gal 1:3-5 (ESV)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Gal 3:1 (ESV)
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.

Gal 3:13-14 (ESV)
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us-for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”- so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Gal 4:4-5 (ESV)
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.

Notice that the redemptive gospel focus is once again the cross and Christ’s death.  Note too how Jews (for Paul’s ‘we’ refers to Jewish believers) under the law are ‘redeemed’.  It is not by Christ’s keeping of the Law but by him bearing the curse of the Law.  Here again, in the very context of redemption from law, was a perfect opportunity for Paul to tell us that Christ lived a law-keeping life for us and it is necessary to our justification.  But there is no suggestion of such a thing; we are redeemed not through him keeping its commands but through him bearing its curse.  It is through cancelling the curse of the law in his sin-bearing death and redeeming us from law that the blessings of justification by faith promised to Abraham may be realized. Language could scarcely be clearer.


Eph 1:7 (ESV)
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace,

Eph 2:12-16 (ESV)
remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

The comments made about many a text above could equally be said here.  Forgiveness, redemption, acceptance, reconciliation and peace are all through the blood of the cross.


Col 1:19-22 (ESV)
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.  And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him,

Col 2:13-15 (ESV)
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Reconciliation and forgiveness of trespasses (broken laws) at the cross.  The ‘legal demands’ are met in full at the cross.  There is no life of law-keeping obedience simply a debt cancelled at the cross.


1Tim 2:5-7 (ESV)
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

Titus 2:13-14 (ESV)
waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.


Heb 2:14-15 (ESV)
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

Heb 9:11-15 (ESV)
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.  Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.

Purification (cultic image tantamount to legal image of justification) is through blood-sacrifice.  Consciences are completely cleansed by Christ’s blood sacrifice.  Note carefully the final words: since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. Death redeems from all transgressions.  No ‘added’ life of law-keeping is required.

Heb 9:22-28 (ESV)
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.  Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Heb 10:10-14 (ESV)
And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.  And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

Heb 10:19-20 (ESV)
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh,

Heb 13:10-12 (ESV)
We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.

The message of Hebrews is clear purification, definitive sanctification, perfection, acceptance are all accomplished in toto at the cross.


1Pet 1:18-20 (ESV)
knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you

1Pet 2:24 (ESV)
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

1Pet 3:18 (ESV)
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,


1John 1:7 (ESV)
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

1John 2:1-2 (ESV)
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.


Rev 5:9-10 (ESV)
And they sang a new song, saying, ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​“Worthy are you to take the scroll ​​​​​​​and to open its seals, ​​​​​​​for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God ​​​​​​​from every tribe and language and people and nation, ​​​ ​​​​​​​​and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, ​​​​​​​and they shall reign on the earth.”

Rev 7:13-14 (ESV)
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Where are robes washed?  In the blood of the lamb.  What is the eternal song of heaven?  Worthy… for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed.  Of course we will consider eternally every aspect of what God in Christ has accomplished but the emphasis of the song of heaven is the worth of the ‘blood of the lamb’.

Machen’s dying note to John Murray is often lauded. ‘I am so thankful for the active obedience of Christ.  There is no hope without it’.  Formally of course Machen was right.  The obedience of Christ along with his incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, present session, second coming etc are all vital for salvation.  But that was not Machen’s point.  Machen in his dying moments was placing his trust in a life lived more than a death died.  In this light, these words of Machen so saluted are appalling.  He misses completely the thrust of the NT hope.  It is a hope unambiguously centred in the death and resurrection of Christ.

The doxology of Revelation is far more biblically balanced:

Rev 1:5-6 (ESV)

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood ​​​ and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.


new covenant theology… and to a large extent my own theology

This link leads to an excellent summary of what is called ‘New Covenant Theology’.  Although, over the years, I read little of NCT when I ‘discovered’ it, I found it reflected fairly closely my own views.  I was raised a Dispensationalist and over the years read a fair amount of  Covenant Theology.  I found neither satisfactory yet felt both had important insights to give.  The architects of NCT had a similar journey.  It is therefore, perhaps, hardly surprising, that I find their and my biblical framework very similar.

I recommend you read the post.


imputed active obedience (IAO), a must or a misdirection? (10)

The Bible and IAO.  My intention in the next few posts is to demonstrate that the Bible locates justification in the infinitely valuable death of Christ and his subsequent resurrection without reference to IAO.  Indeed, I hope to show that IAO is not only absent but does not fit as presented into the biblical contours of redemption accomplished.  For me, as I hope for all, the deciding authority in matters of faith is Scripture.  To quote J R W Stott once more,

‘I take it for granted that we will have a text. For we are not speculators but expositors’

And so to the text…


The OT is God’s picture book for the NT.   What God achieves in Christ in the NT is modelled in OT typology and prophecy long before it happens.  God, in the OT, is preparing his people for the Coming of Christ by giving them categories for thinking that will help them make sense of Christ’s person and work.  As we study the OT we discover:

  • IAO creates a distinction missing from the Mosaic juridical system.  IAO assumes the possibility of being acquitted of guilt or innocent without being simultaneously righteous.  The Mosaic Law knows no such distinction.  In the Law, the person who is condemned is guilty (or wicked) while the person acquitted is innocent (or righteous).

Thus we read in Exodus,

Exod 23:6-7 (ESV)
“You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.

Innocence and righteousness are interchangeable.  Different translations use either word.

Deut 25:1 (ESV)

If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent (some translations say, righteous) and condemning the guilty (some translations say, wicked)

The regular categories before the Law (viewed either in terms of a local Court or in terms of covenantal status Cf. Mal 3:18) are simply ‘righteous’ and ‘wicked’.  Proverbs uses these categories 45 times and the Psalms 13.  For example,

Prov 17:15 (ESV)
He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.  (Cf Prov 18:5)

As George Eldon Ladd notes,  “he is righteous who is judged to be in the right” (Ex. 23:7; Deut. 25:1).

Because Paul works within an OT schema and not that of IAO theologies he has no hesitation in asserting that the person (David in Ps 32) whose sin is forgiven, whose guilt is covered, and against whom the Lord does not count sin, is not simply free of guilt, but is justified, is righteous.

Rom 4:5-8 (ESV)
And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:  ​​​​​​​​“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;  ​​​​​​​​blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

To reiterate, the idea that before the Law one may be acquitted of guilt but not  righteous is foreign to OT discourse.  Such ‘distinctions’, the inventions of IAO theologies, are simply that, inventions.   If the Law acquits, the acquitted is righteous.

  • IAO argues the law-keeping obedience of one may be transferred to another.  The OT Law knows nothing of such a concept.

The Law demanded obedience, however, law-keeping obedience was non-transferable.   The law-keeping of one could not cover, replace, outweigh, balance, cancel, or be imputed against the law-breaking of another.  The Law is clear – the one who does it shall live…if a man does them he shall live by them (Lev 18:5; Ezek 18: 5-9; 20:11,13, 20; Gals 3:11; Roms 10:5).   Law-keeping counted only for the individual law-keeper.  In Ezekiel we read,

Ezek 14:13-14 (ESV)

“Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast, even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord God.

We look in vain ifor OT vicarious law-keeping.    There is no paradigm for IAO in the Mosaic Covenant.

  • In OT Law, a blood sacrifice, and only a blood sacrifice, could atone for sin, avert judgement, cleanse, bring forgiveness and establish a right relationship with God.

Though a law-keeping life could not act vicariously for another, a death could and did.  The animal sacrificial system educated Israel that atonement for sin lay in blood-sacrifice.  There were five major kinds of offerings in the OC.   Two were non-blood offerings and they could not atone for sin.  Three were blood sacrifices, the burnt offering, sin offering and guilt offering, and these could atone for sin  and establish forgiveness (Lev 1-7).  Atonement for the nation on the annual Day of Atonement involved two goats, one of which had to die.  Atonement, cleansing and acceptance with God depended on a sacrificial death; blood must be shed.  Indeed even inanimate objects, the holy things of the tabernacle, were cleansed by blood.

Lev 16:16 (ESV)
Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.

Thus we read in Hebrews,

Heb 9:22 (ESV)
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

It is hardly surprising that the Hebrew writer when considering the fulfilment of these OT types (especially the Day of Atonement) writes,

Heb 9:23-28 (ESV)
Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

The Hebrews commentary is highly relevant to the present discussion.  Note, there is no hint of law-keeping on behalf of another.  It is the sacrificial death that is important.  Certainly, the animal that died had to be ‘without blemish’ (Lev 1:3; Ex 12:5).  It must be without defect to be suitable for sacrifice.  In this it foreshadowed the purity and perfection of Christ.  Christ is an efficient sacrifice because of his life of total obedience; ‘he offered himself without blemish to God‘ (Hebs 9:14).  His life gives value to his death – thus his blood is ‘precious’, the blood of ‘a lamb without blemish or spot’ (1 Pet 1:18-19).  But it is the death that atones.  Indeed, it is the death-obedience of Christ that brings supreme glory to God and to Christ (Jn 13:31).  Thus, it is the blood shed that atones; it cleanses impurity (meets a  holy God’s requirement for definitive sanctification, cultic or sanctuary imagery  Lev 16:16,30) and clears guilt (meets a righteous God’s requirement for justification, legal or law-court imagery   Lev 4:17; 6:13; 10:17; 16:16).  God made crystal clear to Israel that blood atones.

Lev 17:10-14 (ESV)
“If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life [many translations say, 'for the soul']. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood… For the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off.  (Cf Lev 4:26, 31, 35; Matt 26:28; Hebs 13:12; Roms 3:25; 5:9; Acts 20:28; Rev 1:5; 17:14)

Of course, the animal sacrifices offered under Law couldn’t really satisfy God’s holiness in the face of sin.  The sin offering couldn’t really atone for sin.  It couldn’t cleanse or bring forgiveness and righteous acceptance.  Nor could the national sacrifice on the Day of Atonement purify and make the people righteous (Hebs 10:1-4).  The offerer of the sin offering was ‘righteous’ only until his next sin.  The annual Day of Atonement must happen ‘annually’ for each year fresh sin accumulated requiring fresh atonement.  The OT sacrifices could not bring lasting righteousness.  They could not bring ‘perfection‘.  They were, after all, only the involuntary sacrifices of dumb animals.  Only human flesh could atone for human flesh.  Only a voluntary sacrifice by a sinless ‘seed of Abraham’ could atone for ‘Abraham’s seed’ (Hebs 2:9:19; Hebs 10:1-9).  Only Christ’s sacrifice could bring real, complete, lasting forgiveness and acceptance.  His sacrifice alone could perfectly atone.   In the language of Hebrews,

Heb 10:11-14 (ESV)
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

Note the argument well, and that of the Hebrews’ quotation above  (9:23:28).  No mention of IAO.  No hint of  a life transferred through divine book-keeping.  Hebrews simply says by  ‘a single sacrifice for sins he has perfected forever‘ his people.  Observe, they are ‘perfected‘ by this sacrifice.  There is no ‘back to probation’ or ‘forgiven but not righteous’, the brain-child of theological systems which treat the sacrifice of Christ as if it were no more effective than the OT sacrifices (revealing the essentially  legalistic thinking of the system). Scripture declares the sacrifice of Christ ‘perfects‘ those who are sanctified by it.  ‘Perfected‘ in Hebrews means, at the very least, already fully suited to live in the direct presence of God (Hebs 10:19) anticipating ‘the good things to come‘ (Hebs 9:12) in the ‘age to come‘ (Hebs 6:5).

The powerful efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice is repeatedly emphasized.  Christ has, ‘ put away sin by the sacrifice of himself‘.  By this ‘once-for-all‘ new covenant sacrifice ‘sins and iniquities will be remembered no more forever’ (Hebs 8:12; 10:17) and ‘where there is forgiveness of these no further offering for sin is required‘ (Hebs 10:17).  Christ has ‘secured eternal redemption‘ by means of ‘his own blood’ (Hebs 9:12). Redemption secured, note again, not by a life transferred but by blood shed; ‘the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God.‘  Hebrews could scarcely be clearer,

Heb 9:15 (ESV)
Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.

To argue that without IAO the death of Christ simply puts us back at Adam stacking up fresh sins that will need atoned all over again is to gravely undermine the efficacy of the sacrifice of Christ.  It fails culpably to grasp its infinite worth.  This kind of almost blasphemous misjudgment Paul emphatically did not make.  He bases our righteousness and other blessings we have through the gospel squarely on this sacrifice (Roms 3:21-26).

Rom 5:6-9 (ESV)
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person-though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die- but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God…

Rom 5:1-2 (ESV)
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

And so, in the Mosaic Covenant, there was only one way to be ‘right with God’ and that was by blood-sacrifice.  The NT makes clear this sacrifice was ultimately the sacrifice of Christ.  In so claiming, the NT was once more simply building on OT revelation.  Isaiah sees that animal sacrifices  anticipate an ultimate sacrifice, an ultimate ‘sin offering’ for the people; a human sacrifice by God’s ‘servant’.  Isaiah has no doubt that peace with God, healing, forgiveness, and righteousness flow from this vicarious-sin-and-judgement-bearing-sacrificial-death.

Isa 53:5-10 (ESV)
But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.  ​​​​​​​​All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned-every one-to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.  ​​​​​​​​He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.  ​​​​​​​​By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?  ​​​​​​​​And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.  ​​​​​​​​Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.  Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.  ​​​​​​​​Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.

The ‘servant’s’ death is viewed as a sacrificial sin-offering that atones for the people bringing healing.  The focus is clearly his obedience in death.  He is ‘led as a lamb to the slaughter… sheep…dumb…mouth‘.    It is his suffering in death that occasions his triumph in resurrection (53:10-12).  Right relationship with God (in resurrection) is established by his death, not his life.

Note too the text, ‘by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.‘   What ‘knowledge’ is referred to that ‘makes many righteous’ (‘accounted’ may be right by is more of an interpretation than translation).  If justification is in view it is hard to see how it can be any other than his ‘knowledge’ of the cross.  The ‘knowledge’ of ‘anguish of soul’ and being ‘acquainted (knowing) with grief’ (v4).  However, at the risk of muddying the waters, it is at least possible that what is being referred to here is not justification but sanctification.  ‘Accounted righteous’ is an interpretation not translation.  It is possible that ‘make righteous’ here means ‘by his knowledge shall my righteous servant instruct many in righteousness’.  That is, the ‘servant‘ who knew the way (and cost) of righteous living experientially would teach it to his followers, those whose iniquities he bore.  This would parallel with Dan 12.

Dan 12:3 (ESV)
And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

Whatever the precise meaning of v11 the thrust of the chapter seems inescapable; it is from the sacrificial death of the servant that all benefits flow.  It is because of his death that the servant lives and has an ‘offspring’ who are ‘the strong‘ with whom he ‘divides the spoils.’  IAO is again conspicuous by its absence.

An aside…

Perhaps, while reflecting on the OT, this is the moment to briefly discuss the ‘clothes change’ of the High Priest in Zechariah 3, for this is often used to support IAO.

Zech 3:1-5 (ESV)
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord was standing by.

We are told that the ‘taking-off’ is being cleared of guilt by Christ bearing our sins in death and the ‘putting-on’ is being made righteous by being clothed in the active obedience of Christ.  Now, if this model were present in Scripture then possibly this sequence may illustrate it.  However, the sequence by itself certainly does not establish it.  Indeed, the interpretation itself is wooden and makes the symbolism run on all fours.  The evident meaning is simply that God radically changes the standing of the High Priest from being unrighteous to righteous.  No more is required of the symbolism.  Indeed, if we are going to be pedantic and stress the symbolism further then the clothes Joshua is clothed in are new High Priestly clothes ‘of glory and beauty’.  These are robes of glorification.  In the Day of Atonement the High Priest only put on his robes of Glory when atonement was accomplished and he returned to the people bringing salvation (Cf Hebs 9:28).  But I am unsure if this full symbolism is intended.  The main point, I repeat, is simply that God changes the status of Joshua from unclean to clean, unrighteous to righteous; no two stage process is implied.

And so, by this brief glance at the OT, we can see the contours of the ‘type’ prepare us for a Deliverer who will save his people by an atoning blood sacrifice.   There is no suggestion of vicarious law-keeping.  It simply was not an OT category of atonement.

the cavekeeper

The Cave promotes the Christian Gospel by interacting with Christian faith and practice from a conservative evangelical perspective.


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