Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Piper vs. Wright on Justification

Many of you who frequent my blog (if "many" can be said of such a small plurality!) or have ties to it are probably becoming aware of the differences emerging within Protestantism over the traditional view on justification and that of the so-called "New Perspective on Paul" espoused by James Dunn, E. P. Sanders, and, most notably, N. T. Wright. There has been much controversy over this, because it appears that Wright challenges traditional theology in two ways: (1) He sees references to the "law" in Romans and Galatians as exclusively referring to God's covenant with Israel at Sinai and not also a universal moral law given to all nations. (2) He denies the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer, instead saying that though present justification is by faith, there will be a future justification upon the basis of our Spirit-wrought works. Many evangelicals claim this is a slip back into Rome, but I'm not so sure that that's really at stake (or at least not the degree some people think it is). In fact, I think there are ways that both perspectives fit together.

Christianity Today magazine has put together a very helpful table comparing Wright's view and the traditional Reformed view of John Piper (although I think Michael Horton or Douglas Moo would have been a much better representative of the confessional Reformed position than John Piper). The accompanying essay about pastoral implications quotes Kevin DeYoung, my former pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Questions on Romans 1:16-17

Our small group at New Song Church (EFCA) has begun studying the letter of St. Paul to the Romans. After reading the book some 20 times, I figured I had a pretty good understanding of what it was about. But reading some differing perspectives on the overall theme and argument of Romans always challenges me to go back to Word itself.

Perhaps the best "thesis statement" in Romans is 1:16-17: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, 'The righteous shall live by faith.' " (ESV)

If you have insight into a few questions, that would be great!

(1) Is "the power of God for salvation" the effect of the gospel message or the content of the gospel message?

If it is the effect, this would mean that as the gospel is preached, God's Spirit works to create faith in the message. It's God's powerful, mighty Word through which he brings life. (See 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5.)

If it is the content of the gospel, then the gospel is about the power which God has exerted in Christ upon the cross to justify sinners and break the power of sin and in the resurrection-defeat of death and decay. (See Romans 1:4; Ephesians 1:19 ff.; Philippians 3:21; Colossians 2:12.)

(2) How are we to understand "the righteousness of God" revealed in the gospel? Does it mean "the righteousness God bestows" or "God's own righteousness"?

If it means "the righteousness God bestows" or "a righteousness from God" (NIV), then the gospel reveals that, in the face of unrighteous mankind's dire need in the face of God's wrath (1:18), God has provided a justifying righteousness for us. The argument stretching from 1:18 to 3:20 seems to point in this direction, especially since the Greek links 1:18 to 1:16-17: "For (gar) the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men."

If it means "God's own righteousness," then the gospel is about how God turns out to be and faithful and just. One question put forth in Romans is whether or not God would punish sin and, if he did, how he could still bring his promised life and salvation to a universally sinful world. The answer is the propitiating work of Christ which "shows God's righteousness" (3:21-26). He upholds both his justice in punishing transgression as well as having devised a way to justify (vindicate or declare righteous) sinful people so that they could inherit eternal life. God's faithfulness is also "on trial" in Romans, since the very people to whom he promised salvation, the Jews, are rejecting the Savior (3:3-4; chapters 9-11). If God promised the Jews salvation and yet they're not actually entering into his kingdom, is God impotent and/or a liar?

I suppose it's possible that these ambiguous phrases contain both meanings simultaneously, though that seems to contradict general theories about how language works. Are either of these examples of double entendre? Any helpful thoughts?

Monday, June 15, 2009


I recently found out that a documentary DVD has been made about the slayings of the first Turkish Christian martyrs. Ugur Yuksel and Necati Aydin, along with a German believer named Tilmann Geske, were killed by an organized group of five teenagers in the city of Malatya in east-central Turkey on April 18, 2007. (See my related posts from 4/18/07, 4/28/07, 8/8/07, 4/18/08.) You can check out the film's website at www.malatyafilm.org. The website includes a 30-day prayer guide for the nation of Turkey put on by The Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas.

Being myself a Christian living in Turkey at that time and committed to spreading the news that Jesus Christ was the Redeemer of the world, I remember how strongly I felt the news of their deaths. Several of my housemates had actually met these men a few months earlier. Just two days after the killings I traveled to the city of Adana on the southern coast of Turkey and worshiped at the church where Geske was a member for six years. It was powerful. I remember the strength of the Turkish church and their determination: determination to persevere unswervingly in the face of opposition, given the faithfulness of God and the hope of the resurrection; determination to continue their love for their nation; and determination to forgive the killers and embody the power of the cross and the message of a God who loves those hostile to him. The martyrs' family publicly forgave the killers--news which made the front page of the newspapers and shocked many.

But what I think I remember most was this: As an expatriate, I had often thought of "us" expats and "them," the Turkish church. I loved the Turks and prayed for them daily--as I still do often--but I always prayed for "them." But on April 18 I remember reading Psalms 58 and 59 and unthinkingly found myself praying "we" and "us"--a prayer which, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, opened to my eyes that I was one with them. I hurt with them. As a Christian in Turkey, I was now caught up in this, too. Would my turn come soon? I had already endured a notable degree of mocking, derision, mistrust, and verbal abuse there for telling others about God's salvation. I am one with the Turkish church was the word burning in my heart. It was a moment I will not forget.

Lord Jesus, the Father has begun to pour out your Spirit and vitalize your servants. Would your redeemed saints in Turkey spread news of you through their bold faith, their self-sacrificing service to their family and friends, and through persistent hope in the Resurrection--both yours and theirs.

"Dirilis ve yasam benim. Bana iman eden kisi olsede yasayacaktin." ("I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even if he dies." John 11:25 -- from Tilmann Geske's gravestone)

"Necati Aydin: 1972 - infinity" -- from Aydin's gravestone

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Self-justification versus God's justification

A money matter this past weekend revealed just how selfish, hurtful, conniving, and distrusting of God I really can be. Just a day before, I was talking with some of my students about how their innate response to any wrongdoing of theirs is to defend themselves and proclaim themselves innocent. Ha! Now I too was doing the exact same thing. It's funny how that works, eh?

As sad as it is that such things happen, God has been teaching me a very important lesson through it. I realized that as long as I was trying to find excuses and explanations for my behavior, I was trying to create my own circumstances for vindication--a self-justification. But on what basis would that stand before God? To do such is to fall from grace (Galatians 5:4). Yet in God's faithful persistence, the Spirit whispered to me the truth: Christ the Son has made full atonement for all my sins, and by faith in him I stand fully and forever vindicated before God the Father. But such faith in him means that I no longer lean on any edifice of my own works, logic, or vindication, and instead rely wholly on him. In Christ I was (and am) free to be a sinner, to say I'm sorry, to admit my wrongs in every gruesome detail, and to ask for forgiveness. And such forgiveness did I find, both from the offended party at hand and from God as well.