Archives For Salvation

Why do a series of blog posts on sin? So I can talk about the end of the story! Think about it. We spend every moment of our lives in a cursed world. The effects of sin are everywhere, from the pain that haunts us to the pollution in the air to the brokenness in our relationships. Every tear we shed, every unsatisfied longing we feel, every regret we entertain—sin surrounds us, threatens us, takes every opportunity to ruin that which God created to be good.

The world is not now as it is supposed to be. In the first pages of the Bible, we see a picture of our world. The world of Genesis 1-2 looks familiar, yet there’s something distorted about it—distorted in a good way! It’s a “good” version of our world. It’s difficult to read without a sense of loss and a longing for a place we’ve never visited but recognize as our true home.

“The Adoration of the Lamb” by Jan Van Eyck (1432)

The good news is that at the greatest possible cost to Himself, God has defeated sin through Jesus Christ! We experience substantial healing now, and receive the Holy Spirit, who empowers us to conquer sin in our lives and enables us to please God (see Rom. 8). Through the redemption that Jesus offers, we are called into the battle against sin and evil that God has been fighting from the very beginning. This battle is deadly serious, and even with God’s enabling power we will only just overcome in the end.

But there will come a day when we will step into eternity. The time is coming when our experience with the sin-stained world will come to an end and we will find the home we have always longed for in God’s new creation. John was given a vision of the end of the story, and what he saw resonates deeply in the heart of every Christian. He saw a picture of God’s new heavens and new earth. This new creation evokes the good creation of Genesis 1-2, yet things appear to be even more glorious in the end. When John sees the new creation, he records some of the most beautiful words in all of Scripture:

“I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” (Revelation 21:3-5)

Think of every tear you’ve ever cried, and picture God Himself wiping those tears away, promising that you will never shed another tear. Think of all the ways that death has affected your life—from stories on the news, to family members passing away, to the fear of death that has hung over you like a dark cloud—and hear God’s declaration that death shall be no more. Think about all the pain you’ve experienced, whether personally or vicariously through those you care about. There will be no more pain, no more mourning, no more crying. The former things will pass away. Everything will be made new.

Here is our glorious future. And the part that should sustain us more than any other is that “the dwelling place of God is with man.” He will dwell with us, and we will be His people, and God Himself will be with us as our God.

The story of sin has an amazing ending. In the beginning, God. Sin has affected much in the middle, but even then God’s plan of redemption has brought healing and victory in unbelievable ways. And then in the future, God. The world is not the way it’s supposed to be. But that day is coming.

We wrapped up the previous post with a question: “What role do works play in our future justification?” We’ll get to that question below, but first, let’s throw on the table the whole Piper/Wright debate that’s been going for a few years. The gist of it is that Piper thinks Wright has seriously revamped the gospel, and Wright thinks that Piper is reading too much systematic theology back into the text. I’ve been a little discouraged by the whole exchange, since both Piper and Wright have hugely impacted my life as a preacher, teacher, scholar, and Christian. I value them both for somewhat different reasons, and I’m a bit saddened to see two gems miss each other like two ships passing in the night.

But lets back things up a bit. How does N.T. Wright fit into the New Perspective? In a nutshell, Wright’s views about Paul’s view of the law and first-century Judaism were already crystallized right around the time that E.P. Sanders published his tome in 1977, and a few years before Dunn christened “the New Perspective” with his essay in 1983. However, Wright has just as many disagreements with Dunn and Sanders as he does agreements, which means he can hardly be the poster child for the New Perspective. So you can love N.T. Wright, and not be New Perspective, which is pretty much where I fit in. There’s tons of things I love about Wright’s view of the New Testament. But I’m not “New Perspective” (whatever that means, anyway).

So what is it that’s roped Wright into the whole NPP movement? Here’s the gist:

First, Wright agrees with Dunn about the meaning of “works of the law” (e.g. Rom 3:20, 28); namely, that they refer to Jewish boundary markers (circumcision, food laws, etc.). Second, Wright believes that first-century Judaism was not legalistic (though many old perspective proponents, including myself, would agree with that). Third, Wright tends to see Paul’s arguments in Romans and Galatians along the lines of Jew/Gentile relations, and not strictly how a sinner finds forgiveness before a holy God. The two streams of thought, of course, are not at odds; it’s usually a matter of emphasis.

Beyond that, there’s not a lot in common between Dunn or Sanders and Wright. The first two, in fact, are quite Arminian, while Wright is much more Calvinistic—despite what you may hear from his critics.

Now that we’ve got a running start, what is it about Wright that’s ruffled Piper’s feathers? There are actually 8 different issues, but for the sake of space and your precious time, let’s deal with the 2 big ones.

First, Piper believes that Wright’s understanding of final justification is a serious aberration from the gospel. Again, Wright thinks that our final justification will be on the basis of the total life lived by the power of the Spirit, and Piper thinks this is tantamount to justification by works. But remember, Wright never says that our initial justification (the thing that happened at conversion) was on the basis of any ounce of good behavior. We were “ungodly” when we were justified in the past—Wright agrees with this, and so does Paul (Rom 4:4-5). But Wright says that God will judge all people according to works in the future (Paul agrees with this as well; 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 14:10-12), and this means that Spirit-generated works are the basis of our future (not past) justification. But Piper is not at all comfortable with works playing such an important role in our future salvation. Piper, however, does “believe in the necessity of a transformed life of obedience to Jesus by the power of the Spirit through faith as a public evidence and confirmation of faith at the Last Day for all who will finally be saved” (Future of Justification, 110).

Did you get that? Piper says that works are the evidence of genuine faith and will be necessary for our future salvation; Wright says that Spirit-generated works are the basis of our future justification.

Basis vs. evidence; salvation vs. justification. That’s the gist of one of the most blistering points of contention between Piper and Wright. And interestingly, at a conference a year a go, I heard Wright say that he was unaware that he’s been using the phrase “basis” and explained that he in no way was saying that Spirit generated works replace the work of Christ as the foundation for our past, present, or future salvation. What he meant and what his critics thought he meant were two different things.

Personally, if they got together at a pub and worked this out in the context of brotherly Christian dialogue, I wonder if they’d really be that far apart. I mean, all Wright is pushing for is what John MacArthur trumpeted back in the 80’s with his whole Lordship salvation gig (that obedience matters for the final day), and no Evangelical would accuse him of denying the gospel.

Oh, wait a minute. They did. Um…this is awkward. Ok, let’s move on.

Second, Piper goes after Wright for denying the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ. In sum, Piper believes that Christ’s perfect obedience to the law was credited or “imputed” to our account, so that when God looks at us he sees the perfect, sinless, obedient life of Christ in us. Wright thinks this is fine theologically, but doesn’t see it clearly taught in Scripture. For Wright, “the accomplishment of Jesus Christ is reckoned to all those who are ‘in him,’ but the righteousness of Christ is not the sinless obedience of Jesus that he merited before God on earth, but “that which results from God’s vindication of him as Messiah in the resurrection.” And what is true of Christ is true of us by virtue of our union with him; as such, we received the righteousness of Christ (see Piper, The Future, 121-23).

Let this be clear, then. Wright believes that we have an “alien” righteousness; that our righteous status before God is not our own; that it has been given to us by God through Christ by virtue of his resurrection. I emphasize this because I’ve heard people accuse Wright of saying that our works constitute our righteousness and this is what vindicates us before God. But man, that’s a pretty butchered view of what Wright is saying, and if he did say that, I’ll tie the noose. But he hasn’t. In his own words, God’s justification is his “judicial sentence on sin, in the faithful death of the Messiah, so that those who belong to the Messiah, though in themselves ‘ungodly’ and without virtue or merit, now find themselves hearing the law-court verdict, ‘in the right’” (Wright, Justification, 206).

Okay, I have yet to stick my neck out on where I stand on these issues, so I’ll close with a response to these two issues. First, future justification on the basis of works. This is a huge issue and to understand it fully we’d need to comb through some pretty tough passages. But in short, I think that Paul does believe that there will be a future justification and it will be “according to works” (Gal 5:4-6; 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 14:10-12). The phrase “according to” is desperately vague, however. Will works be the “evidence” of genuine faith (Piper) or the “basis” of the verdict (Wright)? I’m going to mildly side with Piper on this one, though as we’ve seen, I don’t think Piper and Wright are actually saying different things. The unilateral work of Christ, whose death and resurrection was a free gift toward the ungodly (Rom 4:4-5; 5:8-11) must form the foundation for our past, present, and future verdict—hence the word “basis” (see too Rom 8:31-34 in the context of future justification). Everything we do flows from that unconditional gift. So I’m totally fine with the word “evidence;” I’m even okay with the word “condition” to speak of the role of works on judgment day, since according to Paul our works are created and sustained by the dynamic work of Christ and the Spirit. So when we receive a positive verdict on judgment day—when we will be justified—it will be God pronouncing “well done good and faithful Spirit, who took a pile of dung and squeezed a beautiful gem out of it.” This ain’t works-righteousness, friends. It’s God being well-pleased with his own work in our lives.

Second, imputed righteousness. I’m going to side with Wright on this one. As much as Piper’s view makes some theological sense, I just don’t see it in the text. Piper sees it everywhere—in Romans 3:21-26, 4:1-8, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Philippians 3:6-9. But it just isn’t there. Paul never explicitly says that Jesus perfectly obeyed the Mosaic law and credited this obedience to our account. And plus, this seems to assume a covenant of works (you theologians know what I’m talking about) that I don’t see in Scripture either. In any case, what matters most for me is that our righteousness that vindicates us before God is not our own. It comes from Christ, who is inherently righteous (he didn’t need to earn it through obedience the law), and is given to us freely by virtue of his death and resurrection—this seems to be exactly what Paul says in Romans 4:25 and 5:18-19.

There’s much more I can say, but let me just remind us that the whole debate about the imputed righteousness of Christ is not a New Perspective thing. Neither Sanders nor Dunn made it a big deal, and Wright never made it a big deal—he sort of mentioned his view in passing in 1997, which whet the swords of his critics.

Ya’ll sick of this New Perspective series yet? Hang in there, we’ve got one more post, where I’ll lay out my main contention with the New Perspective on Paul.

The last two posts have summed up some key New Testament passages that are foundational for the New Perspective on Paul (Rom 3:28-30; 4:12-14; Gal 2:11-16). Dunn and others have argued from these passages—and this is the most basic center of the New Perspective—that since first century Judaism was not legalistic (as shown by Sanders), Paul was not arguing against Jewish legalism with his justification by faith, but against ethnic exclusivity. To be justified by faith and not by works of the law means that Jews and Gentiles are justified on the same basis. Justification is primarily a Jew/Gentile thing, and not a grace/legalism thing.

If you can get that, then you’ve gotten the heart of the New Perspective (NPP). This is where it all began and all other tenets of what New Perspective writers have said over the years flow from that basic thesis. So, what are those other tenets? I’m glad you asked, since that’s what this post is all about. I’ll list these out as succinctly as I can, but remember, not every NPP writer would sign off on all of these.

Krister Stendahl

(We’re now leaving the world of the New Perspective and into the world of New Perspectives.) I’ll begin with just a brief summary of what we’ve already said in the last 2 posts:

1. Judaism was not legalistic in the first century and Paul was not reacting against Jewish legalism, but against Jewish ethnocentrism.
2. The phrase “works of the law” (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10) refers to Jewish boundary markers, such as circumcision, food laws, and the Sabbath. These laws excluded Gentiles as Gentiles from the covenant.
3. Justification by faith is not the central feature of the gospel, but was one of many metaphors Paul used to describe salvation. Justification by faith is largely limited to 2 of Paul’s letters (Romans and Galatians) and doesn’t come up at all in 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Corinthians and Philemon, let alone the General letters: 1-2 Peter, Jude, 1-3 John, Hebrews. And then there’s James…we won’t even go there. So justification by faith is important, but largely limited to the Jew/Gentile conflicts Paul was battling in Romans and Galatians.
4. Paul, in his pre-converted state, was not plagued by guilt as he sought to obey the law, and he never saw himself as failing to measure up to the law. While this was true of Luther, Paul’s own autobiographical narratives reveal a “robust conscience,” as Swedish scholar Krister Stendahl used to say, who in Philippians 3 says that he was “blameless…as to righteousness under the law” (3:6; Acts 23:1). Paul’s so-called “conversion” (Acts 9; Gal 1) was not so much a change from one religion to another, but was more of a “call” to a new prophetic type of ministry in the vein of Jeremiah and Ezekiel (Jer 1; Ezek 1). He was called, not converted, to be a prophet to bring Gentiles into the covenant (e.g. Isa 2:1-4).
5. Justification has both a past and a future component. Romans 2:13 uses the term “justify” in the future tense (“the doers of the law will be justified”) and the same idea is implied in Gal 5:4-6, Rom 8:31-34, and other passages. Just as “salvation” and “redemption” have a past and future component, so does justification. Since the future aspect of our salvation takes into consideration our Spirit-wrought works, therefore works will be a factor in our future justification.

This is a lot to think through if it’s the first time encountering these issues, so I’ll stop the list here (we could go on and on). But I want you to think about that last point (#5) because this will lead us into our next post about N.T. Wright. Do you agree that there is a future component to justification? Why, or why not? (The Bible must be consulted if you post a response; if not, I’ll delete it.) Let me just affirm that there is indeed a past, present, and future component to salvation. Consider the following texts:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). This refers to the past aspect of salvation.

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). This refers to the present aspect of salvation.

“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5:9). This refers to the future aspect of salvation.

Salvation has past, present, and future components. We are “saved,” are being “saved,” and will be “saved.” And the same is true of all the other salvation metaphors, such as reconciliation and redemption. But is this true of justification? And if it’s true of justification, then what role do works play in that future justification?

If you’re totally lost, then just know that if you talk about future justification, many people (Bible geeks, anyway) will think you’re either catholic, a heretic, or both. Martin Luther himself is rolling over in the grave listening to this post (though John Calvin is a bit intrigued). Justification, according to most reformers, is a past act with no future component. But again, our goal is not to be reformed, catholic, protestant, or Lutheran, but to be biblical—which is what the reformers fought for anyway. So I ask again: “what role do works play in that future justification?” Everyone agrees, by the way, that our initial or past justification (the thing that happened at conversion) did not take into account any good deeds that we did—for we had none.

Are you with me? Ok, so this is where the whole Piper and Wright showdown comes in: the role of works in final justification/salvation. We’ll cover that in the next post.