Posts Tagged ‘Theology


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.


the obedient life of christ was not vicarious

I know we should not use the weakest expression of a position to criticise it.  I know it is easy to knock straw men.  The following example is both.  However, it is a view that I hear echoed regularly online; it may be a weak expression of a belief but it is certainly a prevalent one.  Here’s the quotation:

‘The believer is lukewarm, his/her Saviour was consumed by zeal. The believer is prayerless, but Christ continued all night in prayer to God. The believer is sluggish in obedience, but Christ delighted to do the will of the Father. All this and more – he is our peace, he is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption – when the law comes asking for obedience, believers can point to the Substitute in their law place.’

This is a belief founded on the view that the life of Christ is vicariously ours.  We are told that Christ’s active obedience to the law is our righteousness before God.  His death is not enough to declare us righteous, we also need an ‘active’ righteousness, a life lived.  I have tackled some of the better expressions of this position elsewhere in detail, here I am simply observing the absurdity of a popular expression of ‘imputed active obedience’.

I hope the absurdity of the quotation is obvious to all.  A Christian woman fails to dress modestly but Jesus dressed modestly on her behalf!  Is the corollary true?  I am not a good father and as Christ was never married he cannot have kept the law for me in this area.   The whole line of reasoning is monstrously inappropriate.  Christ’s life does not cover every situation believers over the ages have found themselves in an provide a corresponding ‘law-keeping’ for our ‘law-breaking’.  Yes indeed, Christ has glorified God in a life lived entirely in obedience.  Yes this life was necessary for our justification for the justifying death of Christ required a perfect sacrifice; the value of the death is in the life.  But it is not his life that atones but his death.  In the law the sacrifices that atoned were blood sacrifices.  Scripture could not be clearer:

Lev 17:11 (ESV)
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.

Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.  Substitution lay in a death died not a life lived.  Consequently, we are said to be justified by Christ’s blood but never by his life (other than his life in resurrection which is something different).  The Law demands death for the law-breaker.  No amount of law-keeping by another can make a guilty man righteous.  Christ is my substitute by taking that death upon himself.  He took the curse of a broken law and so redeemed me from the law.  If I live now, I live on the other side of death in a resurrected Christ.  I stand in his righteous position before the Father.  It is a position that is beyond law and not answerable to law.

The great tragedy of this emphasis on IAO is that it takes atonement away from the cross and places it at the incarnation.  Notice how the writer finds his peace in Christ’s life rather than his death: ‘when the law comes asking for obedience, believers can point to the Substitute in their law place.’  The glory of the cross is occluded.  Yet in heaven the song of the redeemed is to the lamb, the one who has purchased men to God by his blood’.  It is at the cross that substitution takes place (Isa 53).  There redemption is accomplished (Roms 3).  It is Christ lifted up who draws all men to him.  The cross is the place of propitiation and where God’s righteousness in salvation is displayed (Roms 3).  It is in being justified by his blood we have peace with God (Roms 5:1).  We are reconciled to God through the death of his son (Roms 5:10; Col 1:10).  It is on the cross he suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he may bring us to God.  In the words of an old hymn concerning the cross:

Bearing shame and scoffing rude
In my place condemned he stood
Sealed my pardon with his blood
Hallelujah, what a Saviour.

The lesson for us all is – let the Bible speak and not theological constructs.  When we adopt constructs and then extrapolate on them, we end up with positions that are risible.  Moreover, it seems to be a rule that the construct eventually supplants the truth.


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?


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.


the second man… the last adam

1Cor 15:45-47 (ESV)
Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.

God’s purposes never lay in the first man, Adam, but in the second man, Christ.  What came first was not God’s final intention.  When God the Father planned history as we know it, it was always all about Christ.  It was always Christ who was appointed ‘heir of all things’ and to whom God intended to subject the world (Hebs 2).  God’s ‘firstborn’ is Christ, not Adam.

Col 1:15-20 (ESV)
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 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.

The OT regularly indicated God’s preference for the second.  Cain was rejected and Abel was accepted.  God’s son of promise was not Ishmael  but Isaac.  Jacob the second twin not Esau would receive the birthright.   David, the second King, not Saul was God’s choice and the man after God’s own heart.  Not Adonijah but Solomon would be David’ successor. ‘  The principle from the ‘types’ was clear, Christ, not Adam, was God’s choice and heir.  Indeed we may use the language that is used for the old and new covenant to describe the Adam – Christ parallel: ‘he sets aside the first that he may establish the second’ (Hebs 10:9).

We should note too that there will be no ‘third man’ for the ‘second man’ is the ‘last Adam’.  No further humanity head will appear, no other is required.  Christ is not simply one prophet in a stream of prophets, he is a humanity head, a humanity source, and there will be none to follow.  There can be no advance on Christ, no improvement. To see and know him is to see and know the Father.

Thou art the everlasting Word,
The Father’s only Son;
God manifestly seen and heard,
And Heav’n’s belovèd one:

Worthy, O Lamb of God, art Thou
That every knee to Thee should bow.

In Thee most perfectly expressed
The Father’s glories shine;
Of the full deity possessed,
Eternally divine:

Worthy, O Lamb of God, art Thou
That every knee to Thee should bow.

True image of the Infinite,
Whose essence is concealed;
Brightness of uncreated light;
The heart of God revealed:

Worthy, O Lamb of God, art Thou
That every knee to Thee should bow.

But the high mysteries of Thy Name
An angel’s grasp transcend;
The Father only—glorious claim!—
The Son can comprehend:

Worthy, O Lamb of God, art Thou
That every knee to Thee should bow.

Throughout the universe of bliss,
The center Thou, and sun;
Th’eternal theme of praise of this,
To Heav’n’s belovèd one:

Worthy, O Lamb of God, art Thou
That every knee to Thee should bow.

Worship Jesus.


living as new creation… in old creation (2)

Col 3:3 (RSV)
For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.

In a previous post I argued that the fundamental reality that shapes our attitude as believers in this world is that we have died to it.   Our new creation status teaches us that through death to the old creation (age, world) we are free from the enslaving forces that rule in it.

But what of the features of that old world that we may call ‘creational’?  We understand that belonging to new creation means I need not lie or cheat or embrace sensualism or drunkenness but am I therefore free to ignore God’s initial ordering of the original creation?  Am I free to ignore for example the old creation’s structures for marriage?  After all in the full realisation of new creation there will be neither marriage nor giving in marriage.  Such questioning and reasoning is perhaps not as outlandish and improbable as it may first seem.  It was precisely this kind of reasoning that led to some of the bizarre behaviour of the C1 Corinthian Church.

Th Corinthian Church recognised they were new creation.  They knew that new creation was a creation profoundly different  from the old.  They rightly grasped new creation was based not on ‘flesh’ but ‘Spirit’.  They knew that in the ultimate new creation there would be no marriage and so they reasoned that they should not marry in the present, nor should they have sexual relations within marriage.  Indeed married couples, eager to live ‘spiritually’ in the full realization of new creation ,they argued, would be better divorcing.  Read 1 Cor 7 for a more complete grasp of their thinking.

In fact, many of the other problems of Corinth stem from their new creation deductions; an over-confidence in how wise and spiritual they were (1-3); living as kings and not under the cross (4); as new creation people they believed the authorities of the old no longer applied and so all things were permissible – a view Paul does not so much contradict as qualify (6);  sexual immorality didn’t really matter because physical things like sexuality were part of the old order not the new creation which was spiritual (6-8); an obsession with spiritual gifts, especially those that seemed most ‘spiritual'(12-14); women discarding symbols of male authority and taking a leading role in churches (11,14); no need for a physical resurrection for they were already ‘spiritual’ and living in the eschaton (15).  In fact, they suffered from what some call ‘over-realized eschatology’, that is, they thought new creation had arrived in its fulness not simply in a first phase.  Furthermore, they seemed to have a Greek idea of ‘spiritual’ where spiritual means immaterial.whereas in the Hebrew biblical world spiritual is not opposed to the ‘material’ but to the ‘natural’.

It is of course not only the Corinthians that struggled with understanding the implications of new creation, so too do modern Christians.  Some point to Scriptures like Galatians 3

Gal 3:28 (ESV)
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

and ask why we uphold hierarchical creational distinctions within marriage and the church which belong to the old creation.  We, they say, are new creation and these no longer apply.

So how do we grapple with this issue?  If a controlling paradigm in Scripture is that we are new creation people living out the implications of new creation in the midst of the old creation how does this work?  If being dead to the world means no longer viewed as living in at and thus no longer bound by its authorities and codes then what about male and female roles, the place of marriage, attitudes to authority etc.   Am I free in some areas but not others?  Does the Bible teach that some aspects of the old creation may (must) be discarded but others upheld?

In fact that is exactly what it does.  It argues that as new creation people we uphold all that God intended for creation before the fall and are free from all that is added to creation after the fall.  Some say this is because new creation (grace) is simply Eden (nature) restored.  But that is clearly not so.  As egalitarians point out there is no hierarchy based on gender in the final new creation.  In fact, as we noted earlier,  there is no marriage in the new creation.  In the old creation Adam was given Eve as a wife – a valuable companion and help – but in the final form of the new creation there is neither marriage or giving in marriage.  New creation is not simply old creation restored.

Although there are continuities between the old creation prior to the fall and new creation in its final reality there are significant discontinuities above and beyond marriage.   In the first creation before the fall man was innocent; he had no knowledge of good and evil.  This is not so in new creation.  In new creation humanity there is no such naïve innocence, a knowledge of good and evil is intrinsic (think of Christ as the prototype of new creation).  New creation is holy (abhorred by sin) not innocent (ignorant of sin).    Mortality was possible in the first creation (and happened after sin entered) but new creation in its fulness is life and immortality (2 Tim 1:10).  So great are the differences that Paul (speaking of the body specifically but which we may probably regard as a metonymy for the whole)  could refer to the first creation as corruptible and the new creation as incorruptible, the first ‘natural’ the new ‘spiritual’, the first ‘weakness’ the  new ‘power’, the first ‘humiliation’ and the new ‘glory’ (though some of these may refer specifically to fallen creation).   In other words it simply won’t do to frame  new creation as little more than a return to Eden, however beguilingly simple a soundbite it is to describe grace as nature restored.

The relationship is more complex.

Let me suggest a way of thinking about the  relationship of new creational believers living in old creation that, although it doesn’t quite satisfy either, seems much nearer  the mark.

New creation  believers living in an old creation recognize and respect its God-given realities, regulations, and rationale while being free from them.

It is more complex, I know, and  we don’t like complexity but sometimes answers are not as simple as we would like.  Let me try to unpack it a little.

It is a mistake to think we have died only to the sinful and fallen.  We have died to the whole creation as a controlling paradigm.  Paul insists we see our true identity not in terms of our role in the old creation but our place in the new.   Our obligations flow now from our new position in Christ.  The springboard for our behaviour and our responsibilities is who we now are ‘in Christ’. Although we live in this world and respect and ratify its God-ordained structures, we do so out of honour to God who created it and not because we belong to it and so are obligated to it.  All that God created was good and we uphold and honour it while here out of honour to God.  Thus we obey authorities because they are appointed by God (Roms 13).  We submit, as Peter writes,  ‘for the Lord’s sake’ to every human institution (1 Pet 2:13).  In fact, this text in 1 Peter helps us understand our relationship (as new creation people) to the old creation to which we no longer belong but in which we still live.

1Pet 2:11-25 (ESV)
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.

Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.  Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly…

Peter establishes our true relationship to the world: we are sojourners and exiles (pilgrims and strangers) and live separate from the passions that belong the world we are passing through.    In reality, as new creation aliens, we are not properly subject to old creation authorities.   We are ‘free’.  However, we do not use our freedom to rebel, instead we subject ourselves to human institutions ‘for the Lord’s sake’ and because we are ‘servants of the Lord’ who recognise he has appointed them for good.  We recognise we are serving and submitting to the Lord and not to men (Col 3:23).   Thus Peter defines new creation identity and our dynamic for living in the world, in the old creation.

Paul does the same in 1 Cor 7.  There Christian slaves are reminded that they are  the Lord’s freemen and Christian masters that they are the Lord’s slaves (1 Cor 7:22)   Christians are to think and function in terms of their new creation identity and dignity not their identity in the old.  Elsewhere in Scripture Christians are said to be the judge of angels and so should be able to judge (1 Cor 6) and should be judged by no-one (1 Cor 2:15).  As new creation heirs together with Christ we are to remember that we are not subservient to anything or anyone for everything belongs to us (1 Cor 3:21).  We share in the reign of Christ.  We are sons of God.  This is our identity and destiny. Paul recognises even when he is destitute his true position in Christ – he is someone ‘having nothing yet possessing all things’ (2 Cor 6:10).

Yet Peter calls for submission to authorities.  Why? For the Lord’s sake.  It honours God when we subject ourselves to what God has ordained in creation.  Thus wives submit to their husbands (good or bad) not simply as obliged by creation or even convention but as ‘as unto the Lord’ (Eph 5) and, ‘children, obey [their] parents (good or bad) in everything, for this pleases the Lord’ (Col 3:20), and, ‘slaves, obey [their] earthly masters… as [they] would Christ…  as servants of Christ’ (Eph 6).  Old creation hierarchies are honoured while we live here as strangers and pilgrims (1 Cor 11:1-10; 1 Tim 2:12-14)

The true model of this tension is of course Jesus himself.  He was new creation living in old creation.  He was the heir living as a servant.  He came to be about his Father’s business yet returned to Nazareth and was subject to his parents (Lk 2:51).   As the Son he could have commanded stones to become bread to alleviate his hunger (as Satan suggests) but he chose rather to live as a man depending upon God.  He truly had nothing (birds of air have nests… son of man nowhere… show me a penny…) yet possessed all things (Peter sent to find coin in the fish’s mouth… multiplied loaves and fishes…).  Authority was rightly his but he submitted himself to the authority of others (Jn 5:26; Matt 26:53).  His submission to authorities was really a submission to God.

1Pet 2:18-25 (ESV)
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

Christ was ‘the Son’.  He was ‘the Lord’.  All the powers of the universe were rightly his.   Yet knowing this he did not exploit this right rather he was content to remain unknown and unrecognised and suffer what ever indignities came his way as in faith he waited God’s time to ‘act justly’.  He had come to live out all the relationships of everyday life in this world as an act of devotion to God and was content to wait for God’s day of vindication when who he really was would be revealed and every knee would bow.

As Christians, we are like Christ, sons of God and new creation living incognito in the old .  We live with our true life and identity hidden (Col 3:3).  We are free from all things but subject ourselves to all.  We are poor but possess everything.   We await by faith the day when we will be vindicated and revealed for who we really are to the whole of creation (Roms 8).

The final blog in this series will consider the tension between living in the old creation while living for the new creation.


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.


imputed active obedience (IAO), a must or a misdirection? (9)

In previous posts I tried to demonstrate that it is mistaken to claim that IAO is  to evangelical orthodoxy.  In the next few posts I shall contend that IAO is inadequate biblically; the case is biblically wanting.

But first, a recap.  Let’s remind ourselves of the basic position of those who argue for IAO.  They argue that when God justifies he does two things.  Firstly, he forgives sins through the death of Christ.  This, we are told, makes us like Adam – innocent but not righteous.  We need not only forgiveness but a positive righteousness before the Law.  This positive righteousness is the Law-keeping righteous life of Christ which God imputes to us (namely, IAO), the second necessary component of justification.

G Machen writes,

“…if that (dying on the cross) were all that Christ did for us, do you not see that we should be back in just the situation in which Adam was before he sinned? The penalty of his sinning would have been removed from us because it had all been paid by Christ. But for the future the attainment of eternal life would have been dependent upon our perfect obedience to the law of God. We should simply have been back in the probation again.”

Machen goes on to say that Christ was

“our representative both in penalty paying and in probation keeping,”

and that for those who have been saved by him, the probation is over since

“Christ has merited for them the reward by his perfect obedience to God’s law. (J. Gresham Machen, “The Active Obedience of Christ,” in God Transcendent (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982),

I ask, who says so?   Where is this distinction between penalty-bearing and probation-keeping so confidently asserted by Machen (and others) found in Scripture.  Where is this limitation of the cross in justifying that Machen affirms?  It is, I submit, the construct of a theological system without a trace of biblical evidence to support it.   I want to discuss this ‘system’ in later posts but for the moment  my contention, shared by many others,  is that Machen’s construction is built on sinking sands, even thin air.   I aver that while the Bible repeatedly locates justification, our righteousness, in the sacrificial death of Christ, it never locates it in his righteously lived life.  We search in vain for a text that teaches – even vaguely – the imputed law-keeping obedience of Christ.  There is no vicarious ‘probation-keeping’ biblical theology.  There is no scent of it in Scripture, not even a whiff.

Now I want to repeat this point because, for me, it is the absolutely basic and fundamental point.  I ultimately reject IAO as a construct in justification because in my view it is not evidently taught in the Bible. When the Biblical writers discuss the justifying righteousness of God (or indeed subjects like redemption, propitiation and reconciliation which the Bible closely aligns with justification) they locate  it firmly and exclusively in the death of Christ and his subsequent resurrection, not transferred law-keeping obedience.  IAO, despite the opining of a particular cast of theologians, is simply missing from the biblical text.  It is conspicuous by its absence.

Even some who support IAO concede this.

G E Ladd writes,

“Paul never states explicitly that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers.” (George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament p.491)

Brian Vickers, In his book ‘Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness’ written to make the case for IAO writes,

‘The contention of this book is that the imputation of Christ’s righteousnes [by which Vickers means IAO] is a legitimate and necessary synthesis  of Paul’s teaching.  While no single text contains or develops all the ‘ingredients’ of imputation, the doctrine stands as a component of Paul’s theology (Brian Vickers  ‘Jesus Blood and Righteousness’ Pg 18  Crossway 2006).

Vickers, proceeds to engage with each text considered to support IAO.  In each case, true to what he wrote above, he acknowledges the text does not teach IAO as such.  His thesis ultimately is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  However, if IAO is not the necessary conclusion of any one text, even those texts upon which it is supposedly based, as Vickers acknowledges, it is hard to see how any can affirm it is a core truth of the gospel.  Are we to believe that one of the most fundamental and critical truths of the gospel has no text that explicitly teaches it?

D A Carson,  a scholar and Bible teacher of the first calibre and one with whom I do not readily disagree, says,

‘the issues are extraordinarily complex’

He writes,

…if we agree that there is no Pauline passage that explicitly says, in so many words, that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to his people, is there biblical evidence to substantiate the view that the substance of this thought is conveyed?  And if such a case can be made should the exegete be encouraged to look at the matter through a wider aperture than that provided by philology and formulae?  And should we ask the theologian to be a tad more careful with texts called up to support the doctrine? (Vindication and Imputation  Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates  Edited M Husband and D J Treiers  IVP 2004 Pg 50)

For Carson, rather like Vickers, IAO, though exegetically inexplicit is systematically justifiable.  Having said that, Carson’s understanding of imputation is so nuanced that it tones down more traditional book-keeping definitions of IAO.  He is reluctant to make any hard and fast distinctions between active and passive obedience and locates Christ’s vindication and ours in Christ’s resurrection.  In his own words, commenting on W Shedd’s traditional expression of imputation he writes,

Shedd presupposes that what God requires is perfect righteousness. I entirely
agree with this, although I would track the matter rather differently, as we
shall see.(
Vindication of Imputation  J:WSCD  Pg 53).

His discomfit at Shedd’s traditional formulation of IAO (similar to Machen’s) is clear when he writes,

… however sympathetic one wishes to be with Shedd, however much one
wishes to defend the view that the imputed righteousness of Christ is worth defending,
however much one acknowledges that the perfection of Christ is something
more in Scripture than the set-up that qualifies him for his expiatory death,
however heuristically useful the distinction between the active and passive righteousness
of Christ, one is left with a slightly uneasy feeling that the analytic categories
of Shedd have somehow gone beyond the New Testament by the absolute
bifurcation they introduce.

In summary, Mark Seifrid’s observation must be noted and weighed,

“It is worth observing Paul never speaks of Christ’s righteousness as imputed to believers, as became standard in Protestantism.” (Christ, Our Righteousness IVP, 2000 p.174)

And so we begin this examination of IAO and the Bible by recognizing that even some who support it concede it does not jump out of  the page of Scripture.  My contention is, that unless completely ‘sighted’ by a confessional grid, the very least any honest exegete of Scripture will do is confess with Ladd, Vickers and Carson that IAO is hard to justify purely exegetically.  I would go further and affirm, contrary to Vickers, that the sum of the parts in a biblically defined justification do not add up to IAO (imputed active obedience) plus IPO (imputed passive obedience, Christ’s death) but to the implications of Christ’s death and resurrection.  Justification, biblically considered, is not located in Christ’s life-plus-death but Christ’s death-plus-life.  Or, to be less cryptic, justification finds its synthesis not in ‘Christ’s-law-keeping-life-on-earth-and-his-sin-bearing-death‘ but in his ‘sin-bearing-death-and-his-vindication-in-resurrection-in-which-we-share’.

A degree of construction, of systematics, is inevitable as Carson argues, but this construction must be texted-based.  It should be little more than joining the dots between texts.   Gundry, responding to Carson says,

Of course theologians are not limited to repeating what the Bible says, but what they develop in and for their own circumstances should at least arise out of what the Bible says. So long as the Bible does not provide such statements, and in the present case says much that points in a contrary direction, an appeal to the difference between an exegetical field of discourse and a systematic theological field of discourse does no good for the putative doctrine.

This seems to me exactly right.  JRW Stott writes,

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

The problem for IAO is it has no text and plenty that point in another direction.

But enough discussion.  Time to look at the Bible.  The question is, how to do so.    I shall try to move from the panoramic to the particular.  I shall first sketch the broad picture, considering some key texts in Scripture.  Later, I shall consider in more detail the subject of ‘the righteousness of God’ in Romans and also the key texts forwarded in support of IAO.  Clearly, this is not a scholarly inquiry.  However, I console myself that it is not scholars who win the day in the doctrines of the church but ordinary believers who hold fast to what is plain in Scripture and have a healthy skepticism for arguments that are rarefied and abstruse. Though, I may add, as far as I can judge, few scholars of note outside confessionally Reformed circles are patrons of IAO.  R Gundry writes,

It is no accident, then, that in New Testament theologians’ recent and current treatments of justification, you would be hard-pressed to find any discussion of an imputation of Christ’s righteousness . . . The notion is passé, neither because of Roman Catholic influence nor because of theological liberalism, but because of fidelity to the relevant biblical texts. Thus New Testament theologians are now disposed to talk about the righteousness of God in terms of his salvific activity in a covenantal framework, not in terms of imputation of Christ’s righteousness in a bookkeeping framework. (Why I didn’t Endorse The Gospel of Jesus Christ:An Evangelical Celebration  Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debate  IVP 2004)

At last…we turn to the Bible… in the next post!

Why I Didn’t Endorse The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration

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