Friday, July 28, 2006

Who Said the Following (NO GOOGLING!!!)

In light of the series of posts about justification going on over at Pyromaniacs, I thought I'd give the following quiz, just for funsies. So, without using any technological wizardry, like internet search engines, tell me: who said the following?

A. What we are trying to do here is own up to the teaching of Romans 5:1, for example, that teaches that we are already justified before God. God does not wait to the end of our lives in order to declare us righteous. In fact, we would not be able to have the assurance and freedom in order to live out the radical demands of Christ unless we could be confident that because of our faith we already stand righteous before him.

Nevertheless, we must also own up to the fact that our final salvation is made contingent upon the subsequent obedience which comes from faith. The way these two truths fit together is that we are justified on the basis of our first act of faith because God sees in it (like he can see the tree in an acorn) the embryo of a life of faith. This is why those who do not lead a life of faith with its inevitable obedience simply bear witness to the fact that their first act of faith was not genuine.

The textual support for this is that Romans 4:3 cites Genesis 15:6 as the point where Abraham was justified by God. This is a reference to an act of faith early in Abraham's career. Romans 4:l9-22, however, refers to an experience of Abraham many years later (when he was 100 years old, see Genesis 2l:5,l2) and says that because of the faith of this experience Abraham was reckoned righteous. In other words, it seems that the faith which justified Abraham is not merely his first act of faith but the faith which gave rise to acts of obedience later in his life. (The same thing could be shown from James 2:2l-24 in its reference to a still later act in Abraham's life, namely, the offering of his son, Isaac, in Genesis 22.) The way we put together these crucial threads of Biblical truth is by saying that we are indeed justified on the basis of our first act of faith but not without reference to all the subsequent acts of faith which give rise to the obedience that God demands.

B. When we stand before Christ as Judge we will be judged according to our deeds in this life. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad (2 Co. 5:10)." This is not an isolated teaching in the New Testament. Jesus said in Matthew 16:27, "The Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will then recompense every person according to his deeds." And in the very last chapter of the Bible Jesus said, "Behold, I am coming quickly, and my reward is with me, to render to every person according to what he has done" (Rev. 22:12). In other words the way you live is not unimportant.

Now the more difficult question: why is it important? Why are the deeds done in the body the evidence in this courtroom? Is the aim of this judgment to declare who is lost and who is saved, according to the works done in the body? Or is the aim of this judgment to declare the measure of your reward in the age to come according to the works done in the body? I think the answer of the New Testament is both. Our deeds will reveal who enters the age to come, and our deeds will reveal the measure of our reward in the age to come . . .

How then can I say that the judgment of believers will not only be the public declaration of the measure of our reward in the kingdom of God according to our deeds, but will also be the public declaration of our salvation—our entering the kingdom—according to our deeds? The answer in a couple sentences is that our deeds will be the public evidence brought forth in Christ's courtroom to demonstrate that our faith is real. And our deeds will be the public evidence brought forth to demonstrate the varying measures of our obedience of faith (cf. Rom. 12:3; 1Thess. 1:3; 2 Thess. 1:11). In other words, salvation is by faith, and rewards are by faith, but the evidence of invisible faith in the judgment hall of Christ will be a transformed life. Our deeds are not the basis of our salvation, they are the evidence of our salvation. They are not foundation, they are demonstration.

C. And we now discover that this declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit – that is, it occurs on the basis of ‘works’ in Paul’s redefined sense. And, near the heart of Paul’s theology, it occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict, when someone, responding in believing obedience to the ‘call’ of the gospel, believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. This is the point about justification by faith – to revert to the familiar terminology: it is the anticipation in the present of the verdict which will be reaffirmed in the future. Justification is not ‘how someone becomes a Christian’. It is God’s declaration about the person who has just become a Christian. And, just as the final declaration will consist, not of words so much as of an event, namely, the resurrection of the person concerned into a glorious body like that of the risen Jesus, so the present declaration consists, not so much of words, though words there may be, but of an event, the event in which one dies with the Messiah and rises to new life with him, anticipating that final resurrection.

D. [Justification] is similar to the case of a sick man who believes the doctor who promises him a sure recovery and in the meantime obeys the doctor's order in the hope of the promised recovery
[from his sinful tendencies] and abstains from those things which have been forbidden him [by the doctor], so that he may in no way hinder the promised return to health or increase his sickness until the doctor can fulfill his promise to him. Now is this sick man well' The fact is that he is both sick and well. He is sick in fact but he is well [regarded as righteous] because of the sure promise of the doctor, whom he trusts and who has reckoned him as already cured, because he is sure that he will cure him . . . . In the same way Christ, our Samaritan, has brought His half-dead man into the inn to be cared for, and He has begun to heal him, having promised him the most complete cure unto eternal life, and He does not impute his sins, that is, his wicked desires, unto death, but in the meantime in the hope of the promised recovery He prohibits him from doing or omitting things by which his cure might be impeded . . . . Now is he perfectly righteous' No, for he is at the same time both a sinner and a righteous man; a sinner in fact, but a righteous man by the sure imputation and promise of God that He will continue to deliver him from sin until he has completely cured him. And he is entirely healthy in hope [in spe], but in fact [in rei] still a sinner . . . . But now if this sick man should like his sickness and refuse every cure for his disease, will he not die' Certainly, for thus it is with those who follow their lusts in this world.

There will be a small prize for those who guess all four correctly without any fancy-doodle internet searching (the pictures are suggestive, not necessarily indicative of the author)!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Prophet

My lonely heart athirst, I trod
A barren waste when, so t'was fated,
a winged serapy 'fore me stood:
Where crossed the desert roads he waited.

Upon my orbs of sightless clay
His fingers lightly he did lay,
And like a startled eagle round me
I gazed and saw the earth surrounded,
Hemmed by sky . . . He touched my ear,
Then t'other, and most marked and clear,
There came to me the gentle flutter
Of angel's wings, I heard the vine
push through the earth and skyward climb,
the deep-sea monsters in the water,
like tiny fishes glide. . . . And o'er
Me calm he bent and out he tore
my sinful tongue . . . not once withdrawing
His gaze from mine, he pushed, unseen
a serpent's deadly sting between
my ice-cold lips . . . Then swiftly drawing
His shining sword, he clove my breast,
Plucked out my quivering heart, and sombre
And grim of aspect, cooly thrust
Into the gaping hole an ember
That ran with flame . . . I lay there, dead
And God, God, spake, and this He said:

"Arise O sage, and my call hearing,
Do as I bid, be naught deterred.
Stride o'er the earth a prophet searing,
The hearts of men with rightoues word."

Aleksandr Pushkin

(translated by Irina Zheleznova)

Friday, July 21, 2006

After Virtue, pt. 1

I've been reading a fascinating book about moral theory from Alasdair MacIntyre called After Virtue. His insights on traditional Western conceptions of ethics and contemporary ethical debate are so tantalizing and thought-provoking that I decided to post a brief series of reflections on what I'm reading. Here's the first:

One of the most common criticisms about Christian morality in the public square is that it is fundamentally sectrian. The accusation of tribalism is probably the most frequently cited evidence of religion's failure to provide ethical norms which can lead humanity out of the intractable moral debates and political tensions in which we find ourselves. Public reason, it is said, must necessarily exclude private religious conviction if there is to be any hope for positive political solutions to issues such as abortion, sexual and racial exclusion, millitary agression, economic imperialism, and the like.

In the first few chapters of MacIntyre's After Virtue it becomes clear that what he calls the "shrill" tone of contemporary moral debate is due to just this kind of tribalism, even after religion has been excluded from the public square. Observing the nature of moral debate easily demonstrates this, as opposing proponents each defend their positions with equally valid arguments based on differing values. Once the arguments are forced back to the expression of these values, such as in the case of abortion which pits "individual freedom" against "protection of the innocent" or "the principle of unviersalizability" (you do not wish that your mother should have had an abortion, therefore you cannnot allow this in the case of others), one has no rational criteria to choose one over the other. This, in turn, results in the fundamentally non-rational, arbitrary choice of personal conviction which is ultimately commended as public policy. Thus the secular landscape is no more plagued with tribalism than religious spheres of moral debate, and the facade of moral reasoning covers what amounts to personal preference.

MacIntyre gives historical reasons for this situation in recounting Kant's refutation of Hume's grounding of morality in desires rather than in reason. Kierkegaard then went beyond both Hume and Kant in rejecting both reason and passion as the ground for morality, opting instead for radical, criterionless choice. The respective failures of each view resulted in the marginalization of philosophical ethics and rational justification in the public square, hence the environment of moral relativism which dominates our culture.

This discussion is leading up to MacIntyre's account of the failure of the Enlightenment and the modern project to provide rational grounds for moral justification - but even at this point the implications of his argument are startling. It extends a problem which is typically characterized as a religious one - namely, how should believers participate in making public policy for those who don't share their beliefs - to the secular kingdoms of this world. On what grounds can anyone justify their public policy recommendations? If it can't be "reason" or "rationality", what's left of secular resources to answer the question?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Here Comes the Judge . . .

In 1 Corinthians 4:3-5 Paul says, "But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. 4 For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. 5 Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.”

Some form of the word " judgment" appears 4 times in these three verses (although the word really has more of the idea of investigation than the final banging of a gavel – that’s why the NAS translates it "examine”), which highlights the activity of skeptical, destructive criticism. Another way of reading it might be “It’s a very small thing to me to be cross-examined by you.” I think these verses are particularly noteworthy in the blogosphere, if for no other reason than for just how bold a response it is to those who are acting as judge. It's hard to imagine recommending that someone respond to another believer’s criticisms by saying, “Honestly, your opinion means very little to me – in fact, they mean next to nothing. So anyway . . . thanks!”

Yet that's effectively what Paul did.

In doing that, he was NOT saying: 1) that he doesn’t care about how what he does affects other people. This is the same Paul who wrote those famous words about love (13:1-13) in the same letter he wrote this.2) that Christians can never judge anything about one another. Again, in the very same letter he wrote about people engaging in open, obvious sin, saying “Do you not judge those who are within the church? The implied answer is “yes, you should!” He goes on to rebuke them for not having judges to judge between fellow believers in ch. 6.3) that he has a “the Lord told me” get out of jail free card which exalts his behavior above accountability.

But what he was up against wasn't loving believers holding one another accountable for their sin - it was the same kind of overbearing, finger-pointing, camel-swallowing, gnat-straining, foaming-at-the-mouth, fault-finding false judgment that Jesus rebuked in the Pharisees. Those who have been blogging for long know what this is like, those who don't even know what a blog is should probably just take a moment to thank Jesus right now. If you're unsure about what this looks like, and have a stomach that's a bit too sensitive for checking out some of the fire-and-blogstone for yourself, just take a peek at Matthew 23:1-13. Jesus illustrates the the problem well with those in His own day who were "sitting in the seat of Moses", "tying up heavy loads" to lay upon people without "lifting a finger" to help, and in all other ways barring people from the kingdom of heaven.

However the Corinthians were evaluating Paul, we know that their determinations of the value of his ministry (and their arrogant assumptions about God's evaluation of it) didn't mean much to him because, as 1 Co. 4:1-2 said, he's Christ's slave, not theirs. It’s only on the “day of the Lord” that these things will be made known, and the Corinthians will be standing next to him, not over him.

But Paul wasn’t just saying that the Corinthians had no right to judge these things – look again at verse 3: he said that even he HIMSELF had no right to judge. That’s a profound thing to think about. God is judge not just because it’s His sovereign right and not yours (even though that’s true), but because He’s the only One wise enough to do it. So it’s not just that you shouldn’t judge other slaves of Christ, you should realize that you CAN’T really judge them – you can’t even judge yourself!

In 1734, during Jonathan Edwards' pastorate in Northampton, somewhere close to 300 people came to Christ – men, women and even children. Edwards said that “some came some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbors.” In writing about what he experienced in his ministry, leading these people and discipling them, he said this:
I know there is a great aptness in men who suppose they have had some experience of the power of religion, to think themselves sufficient to discern and determine the state of others by a little conversation with them; and experience has taught me that this is an error. I once did not imagine that the heart of man had been so unsearchable as it is. I am less charitable, and less uncharitable than once I was. I find more doings in wicked men that may counterfeit, and make a fair show of piety; and more ways that the remaining corruption of the godly may make them appear like carnal men, formalists, and dead hypocrites, than once I knew of. The longer I live, the less I wonder that God challenges it as his prerogative to try the hearts of the children of men, and directs that this business should be let alone till harvest. I desire to adore the wisdom of God, and his goodness to me and my fellow–creatures that he has not committed this great business into the hands of such a poor, weak, and dimsighted creature; one of so much blindness, pride, partiality, prejudice, and deceitfulness of heart; but has committed it into the hands of one infinitely fitter for it, and has made it his prerogative.
Those who others regard as "mature, godly and discerning” are often the ones who turn out to be hypocrites. And those who appear “weak, immature and gullible” are often the ones who grow in grace beyond everyone’s expectations. Edwards came to learn that “victorious Christian living” really is ultimately all about keeping your eyes on your own work, being faithful in your own service, with the earnest desire that it will please your Lord, to whom you will give an account when He returns. And that means you shouldn't necessarily care for the "authoritative" praises or condemnations of other insignificant slaves, even if they have dressed themselves up as popes, and they certainly aren’t out to get their master’s job as Lord and Judge. God help us to be faithful slaves.