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First the low down, then a few statements, and then a lot of questions.

About two weeks ago Jen Wilkin wrote a piece called “Failure Is Not a Virtue” in which she registered her concern over celebratory failurisum–“the idea that believers cannot obey the Law and will fail at every attempt.” I thought her post was right to expose one of the possible errors in talking about sanctification, especially when some in the Reformed community have suggested that trying to help people stop sinning is a waste of time akin to teaching frogs how to fly.

In response, Tullian Tchividjian accused Jen of “theological muddiness,” saying that while failure is not a virtue, acknowledging failure most definitely is. After that, Michael Kruger jumped in, arguing that Tullian’s response failed to distinguish between the second and third use of the law. Then Mark Jones, whose excellent book on Antinomianism I commended here and here, came down on the side of Jen and offered to fly to Florida to debate law and gospel with Tullian, his fellow PCA pastor. Carl Trueman seconded the idea, and Jared Oliphint weighed in with a fine piece on the relationship between law and gospel in Reformed theology.

It’s no surprise that I share the concerns raised by Jen, Michael, Mark, Jared, and others in this discussion. I’ve already written a book on the subject and dozens of blog posts, so I won’t repeat everything I’ve already said. What may be helpful, however, is to try to push this discussion to the next level. I think Mark Jones has the right idea. Whether it’s a public debate or not, we as fellow evangelicals, often fellow Reformed pastors, and sometimes fellow friends, should be willing to provide further clarity and answer some probing questions from both sides of this scuffle over sanctification. And we should do at least some of this publicly, because this has been a public discussion entered into willingly by “public figures” on all sides.

We all agree the differences are not mere semantics. We all agree the issues are of crucial importance for the church’s preaching, counseling, and overall health and vitality. So let’s move past boilerplate and try to get to the bottom of these critical disagreements.

What We All Agree On (I Think)

On a number of key points, I think we are all singing from the same hymnal.

1. We cannot justify ourselves by anything we do or try to accomplish. Self-salvation is anti-gospel and doesn’t work (Gal. 1:8). We are only made right with God through the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21), gifts which come to us by faith alone (Eph. 2:1-10).

2. Growth in godliness is impossible apart from the inner working of the Holy Spirit. God does not save us by grace and then tell us that the rest of the Christian life is up to us (Phil. 2:11-12). The gospel is for all of life. We need to be strengthened in the inner man (Eph. 3:16) and renewed in the thinking of our mind (Rom. 12:1-2).

3. The law of God is meant to convict sinners, including Christian sinners, of disobedience. God’s commands, as the perfect standard of the divine will, reveal to us our idolatries, imperfections, and failures (James 1:23). When we sin, we should not hide our failure from God, but confess our sins and seek forgiveness in Christ (1 John 1:8-9).

4. On this side of heaven we will always be simul iustus et peccator. There is no perfectionism for earth-bound creatures. We are all saints and sinners (Rom. 7:25-8:1). Even our best deeds and most grace-filled acts are accepted by God only because of the intercession and mercy of Christ.

5. The Bible is concerned about our obedience to the moral law of God. God wants us to be obedient and expects us to teach others to be obedient (Matt. 28:19-20). The purpose of exulting in grace is never so that sin may abound (Rom. 6:1-2).

Let’s establish these areas of agreement and celebrate them. This is a lot to agree on. These are precious truths, and in one sense we never move beyond them. There will never be a time when we should stop talking about grace, gospel, and justification. And yet, this doesn’t mean we can only talk about these things or that we can only talk about them in one way. The discussion is too important, the historical precedence for these disagreements too deep, and the dangers to the church too real. Let’s press ahead, not to forget what lies behind, but to appropriate the Reformed tradition as best we can and (more importantly) to stick with the Scriptures as closely as possible.

What We (Probably) Don’t Agree On

I can think of at least 15 crucial questions (with many related sub-questions) that need to be addressed in this sanctification discussion.

1. Can we exhort one another to work hard at growing in godliness? Is striving in the Christian life bound to become an exercise in self-rigtheousness? What place is there for moral exertion and calling others to make a gospel-driven effort to be holy?

2. Is there more than one motivation for holiness? Is preaching our acceptance in Christ and God’s free grace for sinners the only way to produce change in the Christian? Or are there many medicines for our motivation in godliness and many precious remedies against Satan’s devices?

3. Is it right that we try to please God as Christians? Is the language of “pleasing God” legalistic and to be avoided or does it capture a profound New Testament motivation for godliness?

4. Is God displeased with Christians when they sin? Is God ever angry with justified, adopted, born again Christians? Does he see our sin? What is God’s attitude toward sin in the believer?

5. Does God love all justified believers identically? Is it true that Christians can never do anything to make God love them more or less? How are we to understand our acceptance in Christ—static, dynamic, both?

6. Is sanctification by faith alone? We know that work has no place in justification, but what about in sanctification? Should we say that sanctification is monergistic or synergistic, or are these the wrong categories altogether? How are justification and sanctification different?

7. Can we be obedient to God in this life? Is everything we do no more than a filthy rag in God’s sight? Is there a place for imperfect, yet sincere, pleasing obedience in the Christian life?

8. Are good works necessary for salvation? Do people go to heaven without holiness? What are good works and how do they relate to justification and glorification?

9. Is growth in godliness a legitimate ground for being assured of our right standing before God? Does God want us to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith? Should we look for evidences of grace in our life for confidence that we are saved, or is that tantamount to self-defeating, gospel-denying moralism?

10. Is it moralistic to seek to improve in holiness of conduct and character? Is sanctification about getting used to our justification, seeing our faults more and more, or learning to own up to our weakness? Does the pursuit of holiness involve trusting and trying?

11. What is the relationship between law and gospel? Should all of the Christian life and the whole of Christian theology be understood through this antithesis? And is it always antithesis, or can we say that law and gospel, in the final analysis, “sweetly comply”?

12. Does gospel preaching include exhortations and warnings as well as promises and assurances? Can gospel preaching be reduced to “acceptance” preaching, or is there are a place for other kinds of indicatives in our proclamation of the good news?

13. Is the good work in sanctification produced in us by God also done by us in the execution of our willing and acting? Is Christ the only active agent in our pursuit of godliness? How does God work in us and we work out our salvation with fear and trembling?

14. What is the place of union with Christ in the order of salvation? How does an understanding of the duplex gratia  (the twofold blessing of justification and sanctification) affect our approach to sanctification? How might the doctrine of union with Christ protect us from legalism and antinomianism?

15. Can we preach the law pointedly, not only for conviction of sin, but so that we might keep striving for greater obedience to God’s revealed will? We know that law establishes the perfect rule for righteousness and that God wants us to walk in obedience to his commands, but is the only way to produce this obedience by the preaching of justification? Is the only way to accomplish the imperatives by preaching the indicatives, or can we also insist on the imperatives without apology?

Maybe we agree on more of these points than I imagine. Maybe on some issues the disagreement is over matters of emphasis. Maybe my thinking needs its own tweaking. That’s all possible, likely even.

But it’s also possible—and in fact, everyone seems to agree on this point—that there are profound disagreements about what sanctification is and how it happens. I’d be happy to slowly work through each of these questions over the coming months. I’d be happy to look at questions from the “other side.” I’d be happy to see Mark and Tullian sit down (or stand up, as the case may be) for a friendly debate. I’d be happy for anyone willing to hash through these questions, ready to quote Bible verses and bring to bear the wisdom of our confessional tradition. I’d be happy for anyone or anything that produces clarity.

We all agree these issues really matter. So let’s see what’s really the matter.


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Comments:


475 thoughts on “What We All Agree On, and What We (Probably) Don’t, In this Sanctification Debate”

  1. Bill says:

    Kenton, yeah we reached an impasse. And this one for me is one of the few I can ever compromise. Can’t imagine how I can be saved if somebody had not kept the law for me, since God requires me to keep every single one of his commands perfectly as the Sermon on the Mount shows. Had Christ not kept it for me, I would be utterly lost. It would be impossible for my conscience to grasp a Saviour that has not perfectly obeyed God”s law in my stead and thus satisfied What God demands from me and I am unable to perform.

  2. Bill says:

    Sorry, meant to say that I can never compromise on this doctrine instead of ever

  3. Bill says:

    How could I have missed Romans 8:4 where the legal righteousness that comes from Christ is explicitly stated. You see the righteousness of faith is simply a legal righteousness that comes from Christ’s obedience instead of our obedience (righteousness of law). But both the righteousness of faith and the righteousness of the law are forensic as Romans 8:4 explicitly states:. Romans 8:4: In order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

  4. Bill says:

    And Romans 8:4 which I just outlined ties perfectly with Romans 3:31′ where faith rather than nullify the law it satisfies the requirements of the law as Paul states, it is not contrary to the law but faith fulfills the law. With all is requirements, this is why justification by faith has a forensic nature as the reformers correctly understood.

  5. d camp says:

    Kenton,

    It is good that you acknowledge “a process of sorts,” for Scripture clearly does describe our salvation as a process from our perspective as well as that of the Spirit who sanctifies, as Romans 8:28-30 point to different elements of God’s work in history in our individual salvation. We have been justified – an event fully accomplished – and enjoy the “first fruits” even now of legal and positional holiness/sanctification living in the realm of the Spirit, but the Spirit is also progressively working in our character to reflect the image of Christ. The cross work of Christ is finished, but not yet fully applied which is why Paul writes in the terms he does, “He that began a good work in you will continue it until the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1:6) Just as in Phil 2:12, 13, we are active yet our pursuit of Christ and obedience to the Word is ultimately a work of the Spirit.

    We are not progressively justified, but we are progressing in the process of holiness that Paul describes in 2 Cor 7:1 and 1 Thess 5:23, and the author of Hebrews refers to in Heb 12:14. Yes, “it is a process of sorts,” but not a process of justification. God continues to set-us apart in our behavior and response to the world, a process referred to as sanctification (1 Thess 5:23, 24) but different in another sense from our positional sanctification that is defined by the realm of the holy (Spirit) and referred to by Paul in 1 Cor 6:11.

    Yes, I agree that what “we are to pursue is an out working of our justification,” but that is what Paul is referring to in the texts mentioned (below) and fully consistent with the process of progressive sanctification. Although you chose not to use the term progressive sanctification, the concept as an element of our salvation is clearly “in Scripture.” Just to be clear, the term “legal record-swapping” is your term, of course, not one that I or any commentator/confession I have ever read uses. Furthermore, our progressive sanctification is not accurately defined by your phrase, “inclusion of sinners into the covenant as God’s righteous people,” but rather includes the Spirit-empowered obedience to the New Covenant “Law of Christ” and the reflection or outworking of our covenant status. Nor does your phrase accurately define Paul’s words, “work out your salvation,” words best explicated by the beginning of v 12, “as you have always obeyed” and consistent with the process he describes in 2 Cor 7:1 and 1 Thess 5:23.

    “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” (2 Cor 7:1)

    “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thess 5:23)

    “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Heb 12:14)

    John Owen describes it well: http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/holyspirit_owen.html

  6. LWesterlund says:

    Thank you, d camp! I have followed the discussion lately and found myself nodding in agreement with Kenton, only to be startled by his saying that the theologian whose views most closely align with his is N. T. Wright! I feel like I have been led down a garden path. Your comment helped immensely. I recognize a familiar NPP emphasis in the phrase, “inclusion of sinners into the covenant as God’s righteous people.” With Wright, it is the covenant that matters, not the atoning work that delivers us from the wrath of God, which eternally condemn us. Wright minimizes sin and judgment. I conclude ruefully that just as I have long thought that it is not so much what Wright says, as what he omits, so here, too, I have listened to what was being said, failing to be alert to what is omitted. So, thank you. And Kenton, I mean no offense.

  7. Kenton says:

    @d camp, I think you misread me. I wasn’t saying that “inclusion of sinners into the covenant as God’s righteous people” is progressive sanctification, but positional sanctification, which I argued is the primary usage of the term in the New Testament. As to the outworking of that positional sanctification, all I was trying to say was that what is called progressive sanctification — what Paul calls training and maturity and what Peter describes as increasing in the qualities of the ‘divine nature’ — has nothing to do with our hearts becoming increasingly less sin-filled, but rather about living out practically what God has done positionally and spiritually. Yes, training and maturity suggest a progressive, gradual transformation of conduct and thought, but not necessarily a change in heart or spirit. I apologize if my words made it appear as though I was denying the necessity or reality of obedience. “The Spirit-empowered obedience to the New Covenant “Law of Christ” and the reflection or outworking of our covenant status” is exactly what I was trying to argue.

    @LWesterlund, when I said that NT Wright came closest, I was trying to answer Bill’s question about which theologians held my position. I specifically meant that NT Wright came closest with regards to viewing the covenant as the frame for God’s activity, as well as Wright’s careful distinction of how Jews and Gentiles fit into God’s plans. As I acknowledged, he is a bit off on justification and perhaps even the final judgment, but as my responses to Bill indicate, I do think the Reformed and Lutheran perspectives on righteousness and the Law don’t actually take Paul’s arguments in Romans and Galatians into account.

    As to the covenant, my point was not to deny wrath or judgment, but to put the law, righteousness and salvation within proper context. The forensic, legal court room is a poor framing device that neither reflects the New Testament perspective, nor accounts for how God has chosen to bring redemption. I won’t make a drawn out case here, but to respond to your concerns, the “atoning work that delivers us from the wrath of God” takes place within a covenant — not an abstracted forensic — context. Such a view not only takes into account the fact that God demonstrates wrath against sinners, but that God also promised to redeem humanity. This is why Paul says that “Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” It is in that sense that God’s covenant faithfulness matters, because in delivering up Jesus and raising him from the dead, God is faithful to his promise to justify those who believe. NT Wright admittedly denies the latter, but that is why I said he and others go too far.

    So I hope that clarifies my position. I am fully aware that many scholars who hold to a NPP perspective tend to be almost apologetic toward pharisaic Judaism and blur the distinction between a righteousness based on works and a righteousness based on faith. I certainly never meant to do that; in fact, I think the Reformed/Lutheran view of justification actually still upholds a righteousness by works (even if its Christ’s works).

  8. d camp says:

    Kenton,

    I appreciate that we are indeed talking about the same process. I would just say further that any transformation in “conduct and thought” arises from and is separable from the Spirit’s constant work in our hearts, and the concept of progressive sanctification is what Peter points to when he writes, “but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts” (1 Peter 3:15), as well as Paul in Rom 6:22, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”

  9. Bill says:

    One thing I want to take back. Limited atonement is not the reason why modern Calvinism is plagued with legalism. A Norman Shepherd could never have come out of Lutheranism , he had to be a Calvinist. The reason is failure to distinguish between law and gospel. Many Calvinists fail to u derstand that the purpose of God’s coomannds / Law is not that we will obey them, but that we will come to the realization of our inability to obey them. The law came so that sin will abound , not for the purpose that there would be less sin, Romans 5:20 . This is the main purpose of the law, knowledge of sin Romans 3:20. The law is that a mirror that shows our sin, and this is the sole use of the law that Paul identifies in Romans and Galatians. The third use of the law , being a guide for Christian living, is not mentioned by Paul in Romans or Galatians. The law as restraining man, restraining evil is also not mentioned. Although the confessions affirm three uses of the law, Paul affirms only one, and this is the sole use of the law in my view. Other uses are either non existent, or very secondary and not worth teaching due to their low importance , even though the confessions mention three uses of the law , we have to go by the sole use of the law the apostle Paul teaches. And the purpose of the law is never obedience, which rthe law can not produce, but to show and to increase idisobedience Romans 5:20 , even though the law can not be blamed for the increase in disobedience it produces as Paul teaches in Romans 7 , the blame lies with man”s sinful nature, nonetheless the biblical purpose of the law is to increase and not to decrease disobedience.

  10. Bill says:

    I have a very high view of the law as Paul in Romans 7:12 . The preaching of the law to Christians and notn Christians is fundamental to kill all sense of self worth, to mortifying the deeds of the flesh, i.e to destroy all sense of self righteousness or sel,justification and ensure we have no confidence in the flesh. The law not only prepares us for the gospel but reinforces the gospel as the only way of salvation. One thing though the law can never be used for is to produce obedience to it. Or to even hint obedience to the law is possible, that would be idolatry.

  11. LWesterlund says:

    Thank you, Kenton, for taking the time for that clarification. It is clear to me now that when you make the point to Bill that our righteousness is not because Christ’s perfect obedience to the Law is credited to us, I find myself agreeing:
    First, because the Mosaic Law was part of the Old Covenant. Even fully observed, It could not make the guilty conscience clean, as the writer to the Hebrews makes plain. Secondly, because viewing our salvation only as a reckoning to our account of a righteousness we do not possess does not fully express our salvation. We are dead in our sins, and only because God graciously calls us by faith in Christ to die with Him (in a mysterious union with Christ, which, by grace, is a spiritual reality) and be raised to new life, are we made alive. We are now given the right to become sons and are given His Spirit. John 1:12.
    However, what has also become clear is that when you say that “the forensic, legal courtroom is a poor framing device that does not reflect the New Testament perspective,” I can not agree. Wright mocks the courtroom scene, but in the first three chapters of Romans, Paul lays out the legal case against all men, and the righteousness of the Righteous Judge. We all must appear before our Judge, and we are guilty. That is forensic language. In Col. 3:14, we read that Christ has cancelled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.” (ESV) To omit this emphasis is still, to me, to minimize our eternal condemnation. We are not just estranged from the covenant, “exiles” to use Wright’s word, we are condemned forever. Yes, in effecting our salvation, God kept the promises He had made through the prophets, but not in a way the Jews expected or understood. He brought about a new covenant, through His broken body and His shed blood. This failure to fully recognize our guilt is why Wright redefines “faith” as “faithfulness.” You say he is a “bit off” on justification. Romans asks the question, “How can God be just (not be an unjust judge) and justify the unjust?” And the answer is Christ bearing the full weight of judgment in His body on the Cross. Well, this is not a forum on Wright, so I will stop there.Again, thank you.

    Y

  12. Kenton says:

    LWesterlund, let me offer another bit of clarification, then.

    My issue with the legal/forensic lens is not that I don’t believe there is a judgment, nor is it because I don’t believe that God judges. I believe both of those things. My issue is that it is framed as a decidedly non-Jewish court. My issue is with what the lens omits, which is namely two things:

    1) God is King and Covenant-Maker
    2) The Law is a part of the Covenant

    By ignoring the first, the legal/forensic lens casts righteousness solely in terms of pardon and a legal record-swap before a judge, and then has to try to fit adoption and inheritance into that framework. But this is an unnatural fit, because judges of the law merely pardon offenses, but they have nothing to do with granting an inheritance or changing the law. The King, however, not only pardons, but also changes the terms of the law and welcomes subjects into his own house as sons and heirs on different terms than that of subjects under his law (Matthew 17:25-26; Galatians 4:7).

    By omitting the second, the lens fails to grasp the place of the law as a part of the covenant (as Paul explains in Galatians 3 and 4) and it fails to understand that righteousness is not merely a matter of being recognized as one who obeys the commands, but also consists of being counted as a full member of the covenant. Obedience to the law does not automatically restore the membership in God’s household that Adam forfeited. For that we need to be joined to one who is a member of that house – Jesus the Son of God.

    By accounting for these two truths, we can understand that A) God is King, and as king He condemns and pardons, but also exiles and adopts; and B) transgression against the Law is also transgression against the covenant, and so righteousness is both a matter of pardon as well as reconciliation.

    I think this is important because the legal lens tries to uphold substitutionary atonement and justification, but the lens itself cannot support it. Our judicial heritage doesn’t really have a place for punishing a substitute (much less as a “sacrifice”) or conferring a positive righteousness (much less through identity-sharing), but the covenant and its law do. And that covenant, as explained by Paul, does not promise a righteousness that stems from obedience to the Law but one that comes by God’s promise of sonship, based on the original terms of the covenant.

    The covenant lens includes judgment for sins under the law, but it also accounts for Paul’s statement that Christ puts aside the law by dying under the terms of the law, and then restores access to God our Father under the terms of the promise.

    The legal lens can only account for things like adoption and sanctification as secondary, extrajudicial benefits, disconnected from pardon and justification, because they naturally don’t fit within that lens. But the covenant lens accounts for all four, because it is the proper context for understanding God’s principle aim to bring many sons to glory (Hebrews 2:10).

    So I’m not saying that there isn’t a courtroom, but it’s a royal courtroom. And I’m not saying there isn’t a law, but it’s a law that dictates the terms of a covenant which was established on entirely different terms. And it is upon those previous terms that God justifies the ungodly.

  13. Kenton says:

    I should add that a prime example of my point is Romans 5:18-19. Bill’s interpretation reflects the common view shared by Calvinists and Lutherans, that the “obedience” refers to a lifetime of obedience to the law. This would be the interpretation required by the strictly legal lens. But consider this another way:

    God promised Abraham that he would 1) bless all families of the earth through him, and 2) provide him with innumerable descendants, beginning with an offspring from his own body, that would be the recipients and conduits of that blessing. But once Abraham’s offspring is born, God commands that he be sacrificed. When Abraham obeys, God provides his own sacrifice, and says:

    “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
    ‭‭Genesis‬ ‭22:16-18‬ ‭ESV‬‬

    Abraham’s obedience in offering up his son seems to guarantee and even expand the promise of blessing. His obedience, like the faith on which it was based, preceded the law, thereby confirming that the promise is not based on the law.

    Now look at what Paul says: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.”
    ‭‭Galatians‬ ‭3:16‬ ‭ESV‬‬

    Jesus, in the place of Isaac, is both the recipient and conduit of the promise and is the one who offers himself up to God as a sacrifice. Indeed, it was God Himself, in place of Abraham, who offered up His Son, but in his one act of obedience, Jesus guarantees the promise. The covenant lens allows you to interpret Scripture properly, in a way that cannot be done if you are looking at it from the legal lens which has dominated Protestant systematic theology.

  14. LWesterlund says:

    Kenton, thank you for all you wrote. I do not see how holding to the forensic language of Col. 2:14 omits God as King and Covenant-Maker or the truth that the Law is part of the Old Covenant. I hold both these truths to be Biblical.
    In response:
    1. The understanding of the forensic aspect of the Atonement is not an exhaustive definition of our salvation, but a vital part of it. I cannot omit it, because the language of Col. 2:14 is clear, when is speaks of Christ “canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” We owed a debt to God. Justice demands payment. Christ paid that debt. For me, there is no other way to understand the Cross. The Father delivered up the Son He loved for our offenses—who can comprehend it? If there were any other way to save us, surely God would have taken it.

    2. God makes us sons not because He is King, but because He is love. He longs to bless and be in fellowship with His disobedient children, whose sin has made that impossible.
    To accomplish their rescue, He must satisfy the problem of their sin and make them holy, so they can truly be sons of a Holy God. (It is a sacrifice pictured in the Levitical sacrifices of the Law and the ram that Abraham offered.)

    3. He must not only offer His son as the Lamb who will take away the guilt of the world (John) but place them “in” His Son, dying His death, rising with Him to new life. This is not a forensic matter, but a sheer act of grace, the inexhaustible, incomprehensible grace of the Father who is Love, and who effects our union with Christ.

    4. There are many descriptions of our salvation to be found in Scripture: we are made alive, we are made sons, we have the Holy Spirit, we abide in the Father and the Son, we are made heirs with Christ, we are now the Bride of Christ, and on and on. Oh, the fullness of our salvation! It is a whole, though we may meditate on its different facets.

    Perhaps, in opposition to liberal theologies of the Cross, some Calvinist theologies have over-emphasized the forensic aspect. But for me, the emphasis on covenant is a far greater problem because it minimizes our true need, which is to be delivered from condemnation, to be adopted as sons. It makes inclusion in the covenant the goal of our justification, rather than peace with the God whom we have offended by our sinning. Romans 5:1. Again, I ask, which covenant? The Old? But we are in the New and the dividing line between Jew and Gentile has been removed—all are saved by faith. (Not stopping to take time to check out references, but supplied upon demand.)

    I recognize the theology of the emphasis on covenant, but I find it sells short the greatness of our deliverance. Our redemption, of which justification is a part, is so much greater. We are so much more than “members of the covenant.” We are members of Christ’s own body. We are in Him and He is in us. I realize that the context for this difference is probably covenantal theology, so we may have to simply agree to disagree. One further note: I also recognize the belief that we have to read the New Testament as the Jews of the Second-Temple Judaism did. Of course, it is good to use resources to understand the culture of the Ancient Near East. But to take it as far as N. T. Wright does baffles me when viewed in the light of God’s Word. Jesus said the Pharisees of his time were blind; they received his harshest denunciations! Secondly, the historical scholarship that purports to tell us what the Jews of that time thought is, to me, like someone writing 2,000 years from now and asserting confidently what “Evangelicals” thought and believed in 2015. Which evangelicals? There are many who lay claim to the name who do not agree with each other. Knowing what people thought two centuries ago, going behind their words, is tricky business. Thirdly, we have received the Spirit to guide us into all truth as we come humbly, with clear consciences.

    This is a side-note and I apologize for the length of this, and thank you again for helping me clarify and articulate my thinking.

    Kenton,

    Thank you for all you wrote. I do not see how holding to the forensic language of Col. 2:14 omits God as King and Covenant-Maker or the truth that the Law is part of the Old Covenant. I hold both these truths to be Biblical.

    In response:
    1. The understanding of the forensic aspect of the Atonement is not an exhaustive definition of our salvation, but a vital part of it. I cannot omit it, because the language of Col. 2:14 is clear, when is speaks of Christ “canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” We owed a debt to God. Justice demands payment. Christ paid that debt. For me, there is no other way to understand the Cross. The Father delivered up the Son He loved for our offenses—who can comprehend it? If there were any other way to save us, surely God would have taken it.

    2. God makes us sons not because He is King, but because He is love. He longs to bless and be in fellowship with His disobedient children, whose sin has made that impossible.
    To accomplish their rescue, He must satisfy the problem of their sin and make them holy, so they can truly be sons of a Holy God. (It is a sacrifice pictured in the Levitical sacrifices of the Law and the ram that Abraham offered.)

    3. He must not only offer His son as the Lamb who will take away the guilt of the world (John) but place them “in” His Son, dying His death, rising with Him to new life. This is not a forensic matter, but a sheer act of grace, the exhaustless, incomprehensible grace of the Father who is Love, and who effects our union with Christ.

    4. There are many descriptions of our salvation to be found in Scripture: we are made alive, we are made sons, we have the Holy Spirit, we abide in the Father and the Son, we are made heirs with Christ, we are now the Bride of Christ, and on and on. Oh, the fullness of our salvation! It is a whole, though we may meditate on its different facets.

    Perhaps, in opposition to liberal theologies of the Cross, some Calvinist theologies have over-emphasized the forensic aspect. But for me, the emphasis on covenant is a far greater problem because it minimizes our true need, which is to be delivered from condemnation, to be adopted as sons. It makes inclusion in the covenant the goal of our justification, rather than peace with the God whom we have offended by our sinning. Romans 5:1. Again, I ask, which covenant? The Old? But we are in the New and the dividing line between Jew and Gentile has been removed—all are saved by faith. (Not stopping to take time to check out references, but supplied upon demand.)

    I recognize the theology of the emphasis on covenant, but I find it sells short the greatness of our deliverance. Our redemption, of which justification is a part, is so much greater. We are so much more than “members of the covenant.” We are members of Christ’s own body. We are in Him and He is in us. I realize that the context for this difference is probably covenantal theology, so we may have to simply agree to disagree. One further note: I also recognize the belief that we have to read the New Testament as the Jews of the Second-Temple Judaism did. Of course, it is good to use resources to understand the culture of the Ancient Near East. But to take it as far as N. T. Wright does baffles me when viewed in the light of God’s Word. Jesus said the Pharisees of his time were blind; they received his harshest denunciations! Secondly, the historical scholarship that purports to tell us what the Jews of that time thought is, to me, like someone writing 2,000 years from now and asserting confidently what “Evangelicals” thought and believed in 2015. Which evangelicals? There are many who lay claim to the name who do not agree with each other. Knowing what people thought two centuries ago, going behind their words, is tricky business. Thirdly, we have received the Spirit to guide us into all truth as we come humbly, with clear consciences.

    This is a side-note and I apologize for the length of this, and thank you again for helping me clarify and articulate my thinking.

    Kenton,

    Thank you for all you wrote. I do not see how holding to the forensic language of Col. 2:14 omits God as King and Covenant-Maker or the truth that the Law is part of the Old Covenant. I hold both these truths to be Biblical.

    In response:
    1. The understanding of the forensic aspect of the Atonement is not an exhaustive definition of our salvation, but a vital part of it. I cannot omit it, because the language of Col. 2:14 is clear, when is speaks of Christ “canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” We owed a debt to God. Justice demands payment. Christ paid that debt. For me, there is no other way to understand the Cross. The Father delivered up the Son He loved for our offenses—who can comprehend it? If there were any other way to save us, surely God would have taken it.

    2. God makes us sons not because He is King, but because He is love. He longs to bless and be in fellowship with His disobedient children, whose sin has made that impossible.
    To accomplish their rescue, He must satisfy the problem of their sin and make them holy, so they can truly be sons of a Holy God. (It is a sacrifice pictured in the Levitical sacrifices of the Law and the ram that Abraham offered.)

    3. He must not only offer His son as the Lamb who will take away the guilt of the world (John) but place them “in” His Son, dying His death, rising with Him to new life. This is not a forensic matter, but a sheer act of grace, the exhaustless, incomprehensible grace of the Father who is Love, and who effects our union with Christ.

    4. There are many descriptions of our salvation to be found in Scripture: we are made alive, we are made sons, we have the Holy Spirit, we abide in the Father and the Son, we are made heirs with Christ, we are now the Bride of Christ, and on and on. Oh, the fullness of our salvation! It is a whole, though we may meditate on its different facets.

    Perhaps, in opposition to liberal theologies of the Cross, some Calvinist theologies have over-emphasized the forensic aspect. But for me, the emphasis on covenant is a far greater problem because it minimizes our true need, which is to be delivered from condemnation, to be adopted as sons. It makes inclusion in the covenant the goal of our justification, rather than peace with the God whom we have offended by our sinning. Romans 5:1. Again, I ask, which covenant? The Old? But we are in the New and the dividing line between Jew and Gentile has been removed—all are saved by faith. (Not stopping to take time to check out references, but supplied upon demand.)

    I recognize the theology of the emphasis on covenant, but I find it sells short the greatness of our deliverance. Our redemption, of which justification is a part, is so much greater. We are so much more than “members of the covenant.” We are members of Christ’s own body. We are in Him and He is in us. I realize that the context for this difference is probably covenantal theology, so we may have to simply agree to disagree. One further note: I also recognize the belief that we have to read the New Testament as the Jews of the Second-Temple Judaism did. Of course, it is good to use resources to understand the culture of the Ancient Near East. But to take it as far as N. T. Wright does baffles me when viewed in the light of God’s Word. Jesus said the Pharisees of his time were blind; they received his harshest denunciations! Secondly, the historical scholarship that purports to tell us what the Jews of that time thought is, to me, like someone writing 2,000 years from now and asserting confidently what “Evangelicals” thought and believed in 2015. Which evangelicals? There are many who lay claim to the name who do not agree with each other. Knowing what people thought two centuries ago, going behind their words, is tricky business. Thirdly, we have received the Spirit to guide us into all truth as we come humbly, with clear consciences.

    This is a side-note and I apologize for the length of this, and thank you again for helping me clarify and articulate my thinking.

    Kenton,

  15. LWesterlund says:

    Oops. Sorry for the double pasting! I intended to only say it once.

  16. Kenton says:

    LWesterlund, thank you for the discussion. And bullet points! Colossians and its language most certainly fit, and are certainly forensic. But it is the purely legal courtroom framework, in which the forensic language is commonly understood, that is the problem. Take, for example, Paul’s language in Romans 3:25: “[…Christ,] whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” This is covenant language, the language of the atonement (“propitiation” here is used in Hebrews for “mercy seat”) and the language of the Passover (“passed over sins”) are not forensic. The atonement in the Law is cast in terms of cleansing from defilement, while the Passover is presented as a shield from wrath. Neither are construed in terms of cancellation of a debt, but all have to do with forgiveness of sins and escaping judgment. So I think while the forensic language has a place, more is in fact lost by ignoring the covenant framework, for every other aspect of our salvation is entirely framed in covenant terms (more on that later). Now to your specific points:

    1. I touched on this above, but Colossians is not the only place that talks about the cross. Romans 3:25 casts it in terms of the atonement, 1 Peter and Isaiah use the image of healing from spiritual infirmity as well as pure substitution (which is not so much legal, courtroom justice as it is righteous personal vengeance). Even the interpretation of propitiation as appeasement is less about courtroom justice than it is about redirected vengeance and upholding honor. So there are different types of language that are used to describe Jesus’ death, but all have something to do with substituted punishment for an offense. My point though was not to dispute a forensic understanding of the cross, but to reiterate the necessity of understanding that forensic component within the larger covenant framework of what God does and aims for in our salvation.

    2. That every notable mention of our sonship includes references to the kingdom of God and inheritance demonstrates that the significance of our adoption is that God is King and makes us His royal sons. That’s the logical conclusion Paul makes in both Romans AND Galatians; it’s why Jesus connects new birth with entering the kingdom in John 3; it’s the connection Peter makes between new birth and inheritance in 1 Peter 1; and it’s the point John makes in Revelation. As I mentioned above, it’s also the only natural way you can move from pardon to glorification as sons as the New Testament does. The King who pardons sinners also exalts them as His royal sons.

    3&4 (I’ll deal with both, as they have the same concern):

    The language of union with Christ IS covenant language. God says to Abraham, “In you all families of the earth will be blessed.” To be in Christ is to be in a covenant, one defined by the fact that Jesus is the Righteous One of God, the Son of God, the Holy One of God and the Heir of God, raised from the dead by God and enthroned by God. It is in fact covenant language that can account for all the facets of our salvation, from the Law and its witness against sins to reconciliation as sons to the gift of the Spirit to the purchase of an inheritance and the granting of eternal life and deliverance from wrath. “Covenant” simply means that God has created a people for Himself (whether that’s servants or sons, rebels or saints) who interact with Him on His terms (whether that’s law or faith, fear or love) and to whom He has made certain commitments/promises (whether that’s judgment or deliverance, exile or inheritance, death or life).

    The purely legal courtroom framework cannot properly take this into account because there is no permanent relationship between a judge and a criminal. So it tries to put justification at the center of salvation under such a restricted lens, and then has to stretch to make sense of all the other facets in light of that restrictive framework (for example, treating adoption as a secondary benefit and sanctification as a subsequent benefit). And it just leads to a massive gap in understanding the Scriptures (such as misunderstanding Romans 11 or Galatians 3).

    Consider the term ‘reconciliation.’ It implies a state of estrangement from a previous relationship. But mere judges are not estranged from criminals, and lawmakers are not estranged from citizens. Fathers are estranged from their children, a master is estranged from his servant, and therefore a king can be estranged from his son-turned-rebel. We could do a similar look at adoption, redemption, and sanctification, none of which are forensic terms or courtroom language, and all of which have to do with becoming God’s people.

    As to the goal of justification, peace with God, being restored as members of the covenant, reconciliation as sons, consecration as saints of the Most High: these are all the same thing. All of them are about ending the enmity between God and man, specifically by making us God’s people once again. That is the peace. And the goal isn’t legal peace with God, the goal is “access into grace” and “the glory of God” (Rom 5:2). The goal is that we would be “sons of God in glory” (Heb 2:10) and “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.” “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom”‭‭ Luke‬ ‭12:32‬ ‭ESV‬. “The one who conquers will have this heritage [of eternal life], and I will be his God and he will be my son” ‭‭Revelation‬ ‭21:7‬ ‭ESV‬‬.

    As to the Covenant, the Abrahamic covenant is the Covenant of the Promise, to which the Sinai Covenant (“the Law”) and the New Covenant (“the Gospel”) are subservient. As Paul argues in Galatians 3, the Sinai Covenant was really an addendum to the Abrahamic Covenant that set additional terms on the covenant members, but it did not amend the Abrahamic Covenant in any way. The New Covenant is the amendment that fulfills the Abrahamic Covenant.

  17. LWesterlund says:

    Thank you, Kenton, for all you wrote. I have thought that perhaps our apparent disagreement was mostly a semantic problem. So much that you write accords with my beliefs concerning Christ and his work on the cross. I don’t need to use the word,”covenant”, and you do, but that’s fine. But I think that the dispute is deeper.

    First, it would be good to clarify how we are using terms. I would willingly dispense with the word, “courtroom”—it is an image from our own day that is not relevant to this discussion. We also use the word, “forensic” and again, it is not a Biblical word, but a present-day label applied to an understanding of Christ’s death for us. Strictly speaking, “forensic” is the application of scientific methods to the investigation of a crime. We have used the word loosely in our exchanges to refer to a legal perspective on our guilt and the grounds of our pardon: the “penal substitution” understanding of the Atonement recovered by the Reformers.

    Understood this way, seeing the Atonement as Jesus’s taking of the wrath we deserve, and thereby effecting our deliverance, both your quoting the word, “propitiation” and alluding to the event of the Passover show the centrality of our need for deliverance from the wrath of God for our sins. To propitiate is, literally, to turn wrath into favor, and on the Passover night, the blood of the slain lamb on the lintel was all that protected the family within from God’s avenging Angel of Death. You mention the “mercy seat”; the mercy seat was, per instruction, on the top of the Ark between the Cherubim. The Ark held the Law. The priest sprinkled the blood of the sin offering on the mercy seat—when God looked at the Law which condemned all men, He saw it through the sprinkled blood of the sin offering!

    Our sin against God and the need of His forgiveness is central because without it nothing else is possible—not reconciliation, not adoption, not peace with God, not inheritance, not hope of the Glory to come. As those clothed in the righteousness of the Son, we have fellowship with God. He dwells in our hearts. The people of the old covenant
    looked forward to the redemption that is not accomplished. The peace with God that we enjoy because we are have been justified by faith (Romans 5:1) is because we are made righteous in Christ, not because we are now members of the covenant. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” II Cor. 5:21. I cannot see how being a member of the covenant people is more desirable than being made righteous. And they are not the same thing. Israel had God’s covenant promises when they full of unbelief.

    You write, “As to the Covenant, the Abrahamic covenant is the Covenant of the Promise, to which the Sinai Covenant (“the Law”) and the New Covenant (“the Gospel”) are subservient. As Paul argues in Galatians 3, the Sinai Covenant was really an addendum to the Abrahamic Covenant that set additional terms on the covenant members, but it did not amend the Abrahamic Covenant in any way. The New Covenant is the amendment that fulfills the Abrahamic Covenant.

    The New Covenant is not an amendment that fulfills the Abrahamic Covenant. It is the salvation of men to which all of redemptive history points. When God promised Abraham that through him all nations would be blessed, it is a Messianic promise, as Paul makes clear in Galatians 3. “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.” (vs. 16)

    I am not sure how onboard you are with the theology of the NPP which has a storyline that Adam was to bless the world, but failed, so God started again with Abraham. (Abraham’s fallenness is overlooked.) The Jews were now to bless the world. They failed, and God allowed them to be exiled from the land. The remnant of one, the faithful Jew, Jesus, suffered the final exile, which is death, and so paid for the sins of Israel and also opened the way for the Gentiles to now be part of the covenant people. My problem with this is that I do not see how it can possibly be supported from the Biblical Old Testament. God’s call to Israel was to be holy, not to bless the nations! (The commanded holy wars seem an odd kind of blessing.) Over and over, Israel’s idol worship is recorded, their failure to love the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” Deut. 19.4. That is God’s complaint, that they have turned away from Him, not that they have failed to bless the world!

    There is only One through whom blessing comes to all who believe, to all who receive Him. Humanly, He is a descendant of Abraham. He is also God the Son. Only as God can He bear our sins and iniquities. (Is. 53) He suffered in our place. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” I Pet. 3:18. As Paul writes in Gal. 3: 8, “Now the Scripture saw in advance that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and told the good news ahead of time to Abraham, saying, All the nations will be blessed through you.” Another version has “preached the Gospel ahead of time” to Abraham. The nations would be blessed through his descendant, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.”

    We are not just the covenant people. We are made holy by His blood. The Father has placed us in His Son, and His Spirit within us. We are His body, His bride. We enjoy fellowship with God, as we abide in Him. (I John, John 15) As the angel announced to Joseph: “Thou shall call his name Jesus, for He shall save his people from their sins.”

    Once again, I think we may just have to agree to disagree. I have no wish to be disagreeable.
    I

  18. Bill says:

    I agree with LWesterlund that talking about a covenant obscures our need for salvation, that we are transgressors of God’s law, under condemnation without Christ. Unless we emphasize the forensic it is impossible for poor miserable sinners to embrace a Savior, it basically obscures and hides the gospel. All proclamation of God’s word should be law and gospel, the law condemns and the gospel provides the forensic and legal deliverance without which the sinner can not possibly be saved nor included in the covenant of grace.

    Also Kenton’s interpretation of Romans 3:25 equalling it with the passover is plain wrong. This what Kenton wrote:

    “Take, for example, Paul’s language in Romans 3:25 “[…Christ,] whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” This is covenant language, the language of the atonement (“propitiation” here is used in Hebrews for “mercy seat”) and the language of the Passover (“passed over sins”) are not forensic. ”

    Well, let me say that this is false. Paul is not talking about a passover of sin, as if he will not impute it to gentiles that in the past never heard of Christ. Quite the opposite Paul is talking about the long suffering of God for vessels fit for destruction as in Romans 9:22, this is exactly the opposite of the passover of sin,

  19. Kenton says:

    LWesterlund,

    I think I am beginning to understand where you are finding disagreement. I am prioritizing “covenant status” and you are prioritizing “righteousness”, and this seems to be the heart of our disagreement. I will get to that shortly. But to go in order:

    1. The Atonement and Propitiation: I appreciate your rundown of both the Passover and the Atonement. It gives us a written basis on which to discuss what takes place in each. You say that the Passover is propitiation, which you define as turning wrath into favor (following the Greek I presume). Yet in describing the event, you merely say that the blood was protection against divine vengeance.

    If I may offer a different reading. God says, “The Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you” ‭‭Exodus‬ ‭12:23‬ ‭ESV‬‬. The blood serves to mark out the Israelites as those who belong to God, on the basis of sacrifice. You could say that the very act of providing the sacrifice IS the favor, in which case God’s favor covers over sins that incur God’s wrath. This comports with Romans 9, where Paul upholds God’s sovereign choice. But there is another point: God sparing the Israelites from His wrath did not free them from Egyptian slavery. In the same way, forgiveness of sins is one act, and justification is another, as Romans 4:25 says.

    On the Atonement itself, the particular sacrifices had the ultimate aim of God dwelling among His people. By sprinkling the mercy seat and the people, by exiling the goat, and by the burnt offerings, the people were cleansed from their sins. The mercy seat was primarily the place where God met with His people, so when Paul says that God put Jesus forward “as a propitiation by his blood,” he means that Jesus is our mercy seat, sanctified by his own blood. The mercy seat was provided for the people to whom God had made promises, so that He might dwell among them. That is why I say it is covenant language, because it has to do with God cleansing and sanctifying the people He calls to Himself. They are no less in need of deliverance from judgment or wrath, but the basis of God’s promise and the aim of fellowship are what characterize covenant language. So all I am trying to say is that PSA takes place in the context of God’s promises and with the aim of fellowship.

    2. Righteousness vs. Covenant: How does this relate to righteousness vs. covenant? You say that righteousness and covenant are different. I assume you mean that righteousness is accreditation of conduct and covenant is mere group membership. I think you are missing what the covenant relationship entails. A covenant is a binding relationship between two or more parties. When God says that Moses “is faithful in all my house,” He is using covenant language. Now the common view says that to be righteous is to be on good terms with God, usually on the basis of merit. That is actually also covenant language. But Paul dismisses the basis of merit.

    You say that to be righteous is better than being members of the covenant, but I would question your assumptions. God says of Israel, “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me” ‭‭Hosea‬ ‭6:7‬ ‭ESV.‬‬ Adam and Eve were bound by covenant with God, a covenant that identified them as the image of God, His children. I ask you, when Adam and Eve were created, before they committed any works, were they righteous or unrighteous? They were righteous, evident by God’s initiating blessing. That righteousness could not have been based on works, but on the relationship established by God. To be called God’s people is to be called righteous, for God’s people are righteous. They aren’t two separate things, but the same. To have peace with God is to no longer be His enemies, but His righteous sons and daughters. We are not declared righteous individuals before a distant God, but the righteous people of God’s own household. There is no conflict between the two.

    3. The Covenants:Paul calls the Abrahamic Covenant and the Davidic Covenant the Covenants of Promise (they are the same Messianic promise). In Galatians, Paul never uses the term New Covenant, and he never calls the Law a covenant. There is one covenant, which Christ fulfills in his resurrection. In 2 Corinthians, Paul describes the Law and the Gospel as two covenants, the former Old and the latter New. So the distinction between Old and New Covenants is a distinction between the Law of Moses and what Paul separately calls the Law of Christ, the Spirit’s leading, and the rule of the new creation. In Luke, Jesus uses the phrase, “the new covenant in my blood,” which also alludes to the Sinai covenant (Exodus 24:8). If you put these arguments together, then the New Covenant is that which replaces the Law, which was an addition to the Covenant of Promise. But whereas the character of the Law (works) did not conform to the character of the Promise (faith), the New Covenant does (faith in Jesus). More importantly, in 2 Corinthians Paul contrasts the two on the basis of their terms: the Old Covenant was a fading glory of veiling leading to death, while the New Covenant is a growing glory of beholding leading to life. So the New Covenant defines the terms of righteousness, on a different basis than that of the Old Covenant, which is why you simply do not find any statement that says that our righteousness consists of works of the law done by Christ. It is his status, the crucified, resurrected and enthroned Son of God, that forms the substance of our righteousness. This is precisely why we must be “found in him,” why we enter into his death and his resurrection, and why it is faith in his name, and not in his lawkeeping, that God responds to.

    4. NPP and Redemption History: I am very familiar with NT Wright’s “Christians have a project to fix the world.” That isn’t supported in Scripture. That said, the promises can all be traced back to that initial blessing that God gave to Adam and Eve. Genesis 5:1-3 implies that to bear the image of God is to be God’s son, and Malachi 2:15 says that the purpose of marriage, united by the Spirit, is godly offspring. I do think you can trace the promises from Abraham to Jesus in a progressively narrowing fashion. From Isaac’s entire household to Judah’s household to Solomon’s household to Jesus, who finally restores humanity back to that original blessing.

    But in terms of redemption history, I think Galatians 3-4 are clearest. Adam and Eve were disinherited and exiled from God’s house under the curse of death and the expectation of judgment. With Abraham, God creates a provisional household with a promissory righteousness, in the hope of true restoration by one of Abraham’s descendants. God introduces the Law to condemn Israel’s sins, serving as a witness to the sins of the whole world, while patiently preparing the way for His Messiah through establishing David’s throne. Jesus overturns the Law, its curse and our condemnation by his death on the cross, and in his resurrection he begins to fulfill the promises by joining us to himself through faith. In him we are restored as the sons of God filled with His Spirit, in hope of that original blessed standing before God. In the end, God will dwell with His children over a restored creation.

    That’s the most truncated I can do, without delving into the way the promises were foreshadowed, the way the Law pointed to true deliverance, the way the incomplete fulfillment of promises (with Moses and David) revealed the true need, etc.

    5. Covenant People vs. Union with Christ: I said this already, but these terms are all covenant language. Holiness, the Spirit, the Body, the Bride? They all have to do one way or another with being God’s people. The way justification is often conceived seems to do the opposite, by maintaining the inherently distant relationship between Judge and citizen. If righteousness undoes the Fall, then it must restore humanity back to fellowship with God.

    I also do not want to be disagreeable. But my point is simply that there is a context and nuance to righteousness.

    Bill,

    The gospel is sufficient proclamation because it proclaims God’s coming judgment and His salvation in Christ. Paul not once claims that he proclaims the law. That view comes from an erroneous view of “Law” as any and all command and warning.

    As to “passed over sins”, Paul is clear in that God passed over the sins of Israel and the other nations in that He did not bring down His wrath on them at the time (as He will do in the future). That is His forbearance (“not willing that any should perish, but that all may come to repentance”). It could also mean that He passed over the sins of those who trusted in Him, so that through Jesus’ death their sins might be forgiven and they might receive the promises which they believed. Either way the point is the same: God withheld wrath so that in Christ those whom He has called might receive mercy.

  20. LWesterlund says:

    Kenton,
    Yes, I agree that you are prioritizing covenant status and I am prioritizing righteousness, and that seems to be heart of our disagreement. So the call is to defend our prioritizing.

    About the Passover, yes, God allows them to be protected by the shed blood because they are His people. I take your point. It is all of grace—they have done nothing to merit their being spared death. But if the purpose of the shed blood is only as a distinguishing marker, surely some other way could be found than slaying a lamb. Even so, if our justification is only our membership card in the covenant people, surely God could have found a way to include us that would not require the Father to deliver up his loved Son to a death by torture.

    Given all the ceremonial instructions for the observance of Passover, given that God now says that the spared firstborn now belongs to Him and must be redeemed with a Levite, given the emphasis on the Israelites purging their households of yeast, a symbol of sin, given I Cor 5:7, “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch. You are indeed unleavened, for Christ our Passover has been sacrificed,” I find the “marker” language inadequate.

    About the role of the Levitical sacrifices, they could not truly cleanse: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Heb. 10:4 “For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow, sprinkling those who are defiled, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of the Messiah, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:13, 14) All of the sacrifices looked forward to the Sacrifice who was to come. (Edmund Clowney used to say of the “mercy seat” that it was a “reserved seat.”) They were commanded in the Old Covenant, but the temple itself was only a “shadow and a copy”: “According to the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves to be purified with better sacrifices than these.” (22, 23). “For the Messiah did not enter a sanctuary made with hands (only a model of the true one) but into heaven itself, so that He might now appear in the presence of God for us.” (24). God promised to meet with them, but prior to the Atonement, He could not indwell them—for that they needed His Law written upon their hearts.

    About “righteousness”: the word is used in different senses. The way of the righteous person in Psalm 1 is guarded by God because He loves God’s Word and meditates on it. But Paul uses the word in its absolute sense when he declares in Romans 3 that no one is righteous, and goes on to talk of the righteousness of God. He says we have a righteousness by faith, that is apart from the Law. It is the righteousness of God Himself, reckoned to our account. Amazing grace! How can it be?

    Back to your initial statement about whether we prioritize “covenant status” or “righteousness”: Does that not come from our view of our real problem—whether it is that we are excluded from the covenant, or that we are dead in our sins?

    About Adam: I read of no covenant with Adam. I read of Creation, and command. I don’t know if Adam was “righteous”; I know he was “very good” (in the fullest sense of the Hebrew word, including moral goodness) because he was part of Creation. He enjoyed intimate fellowship with His father and Creator, with nothing to hinder that blessed freedom. When he disobeyed, he died, as God said he would. And we are his children, born sinners, both Jew and Gentile. We will perish unless we believe in the Son. (John 3:16)

    You write in conclusion: “But my point is simply that there is a context and nuance to righteousness.” Why? Righteousness is an attribute of God Himself, the only one who is righteous. It is absolute. He is wholly Righteous. Thus Paul lays out the argument in Romans 1:3 that only by taking just judgment on Himself in the person of His son, can He forgive the sinner. Yes, the aim of making us alive in Christ is all that you write about in covenant language—sonship, inheritance, fellowship with God, sanctification, glorification. I understand that you see crediting righteousness to our account as a cold, mechanical thing, but it is not. It is the way Home, into the arms of Love.

    Does it matter which we prioritize? I believe it does, because a Covenant-keeping God is comfortable; a Righteous God is threatening. We love to talk about the love and faithfulness of God, but not about his just judgment and our continual failure to love Him as we ought. So, I believe, we coddle our pride—which is at the root of our rebellion.

    I have a vivid memory of attending a lecture on “Justification in the theology of N. T. Wright.” I went with an open mind. At the end I raised my hand and asked, “Then why did Jesus have to die?”

    How can we “nuance” the Righteousness of the Righteous God? How can we modify it by saying it needs to be seen “in context”? It is an attribute of God. We are unrighteous. Our only hope is to repent of our sins before a Righteous God, and believe in His Son. Having been given a new birth, we receive “an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” We become his people who were not his people. And that,I grant you, is covenant language.

    Thank you for the discussion.

  21. LWesterlund says:

    One further thought: emphasizing covenant language, when we are, by grace, in the new covenant, is to me like a spouse emphasizing the state of marriage instead of her spouse. Marriage makes possible the enjoyment of many blessings, including that of intimate communion. It is the person I am married to that matters, not the fact of the covenant of marriage.

  22. Kenton says:

    LWesterlund,

    I think you misunderstand my point. I am not trying to pit covenant membership against the necessity for a sacrifice for sins. On the contrary, what I am saying is that God provides the sacrifice for the people He makes His own. This is essentially the doctrine of limited atonement. In the case of the Passover, the sacrifice serves as both a substitute for the people, and at the same time sets them apart as the people of God who, being spared from wrath, would be delivered out of bondage and into the Promised Land.

    My argument in using the Passover was that despite the Greek connotation, Paul did not use propitiation to speak of appeasement by an act or gift, but in terms of purging unrighteousness so that we could have access to God. Hebrews’ denial of the efficacy of animals sacrifices actually explains that the sacrifices were meant to purify people by removing one sins. In this sense, Jesus does more than just take the place of sinners: he actually removes their sins from them so that they are guiltless. My point here has been that the aim of this cleansing is not that we restored to standing under the Law, but that we regain full access to God, as members of His household. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

    I acknowledge that righteousness has different uses. On the one hand it refers to the pattern of life that is approved by God. I also agree that Paul uses it in a different sense, but he does not mean by it the validation of one’s conduct, but acceptance by God (Romans 11:15). This is precisely the point of Paul’s discussion of God’s sovereign election. Essential righteousness is not something that is obtained by works, but that which is received by faith. That is the righteousness of God that comes by faith. As I explained to Bill, a righteousness that comes by God’s obedience to the Law is still a righteousness that is based on the works of the Law. But Paul categorically denies that righteousness comes through the Law or any law.

    I hope this explains why I say that righteousness is a covenant matter. Just as God establishes a covenant with Abraham before Abraham is commanded to live according to that covenant, so we are accepted by God before He instructs us to live according to Him. This, too, is classic Reformed teaching on the proper relation between grace and works. We obey as those who have been justified. Paul simply says that this has always been the case.

    As for Adam, I am not surprised that you read only of Creation and command. This is the big issue with covenant theology, which supposes an original Covenant of Works that precedes a Covenant of Grace. You skip over the founding blessing, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). This is practically the same promise embodied in God’s covenant with Abraham: “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:17-18). Hosea 6:7 also states clearly that Adam transgressed a covenant. The question is, was it a covenant of works, or one of election? I say election, because God established the covenant on the basis of His free act of creation. The fellowship between God and Adam gives further character to this covenant of election. Genesis 5:1-3 says, “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.”

    Malachi 2:15 adds further clarity: “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers? …The Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring” (Malachi 2:10,14-15).

    In other words, God created Adam and Eve to be His children. This is the covenant established between God and Adam, founded on the same blessing given later to Abraham and David. I belabor this point because in Galatians, Paul says that the promise pertains to justification and the Spirit, but then spends most of his time talking about adoption as sons as the reason why we no longer follow the Law. When you consider his clear argument that the Law doesn’t yield righteousness, the only conclusion is that righteousness is based on Jesus’ status and identity as God’s righteous, exalted Son. Therein is the approval of God: not in Christ as lawkeeping servant, but Christ as obedient son.

    And this is my argument: we are not justified as righteous lawkeepers but as righteous sons. And true sons do not work for their place in the household. This is the “nuance” of righteousness. It is not of works, but of faith in God’s electing, adopting grace. This is supported by the way righteousness is described by Paul. Despite your statement that righteousness is transferred from Christ’s account into our accounts, Paul says something else: we are transferred into Christ. That is how Paul obtains righteousness, by being “found in him.” And where is Christ? Resurrected, exalted, enthroned at God’s right hand. There is no greater approval than that.

    A final point on atonement, righteousness, and covenant language. Jesus dies to bring us to God as God’s sons. Removing our condemnation exposed by the Law, filling us with His Spirit, uniting us to Christ, all serves that end. There is no contradiction between Jesus bearing our sins and their curse and our being called the sons of God. To say that we are made the righteous people of God is not to distract from God Himself. In fact, by rooting our righteousness in Jesus’ status as God’s exalted son, I uphold Christ’s person as the center of our salvation and faith (indeed, John says that eternal life comes through believing that Jesus is God’s Son), much more than I would have done if I said that union with Christ is based merely on his record of works.

    “You also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:4).

  23. LWesterlund says:

    Kenton, I have decided to let you have the last word on this. I am not sure I grasp the distinctions you are making or their importance. We are agreed that we are saved by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ who died and rose and is seated on high. We are righteous in Him, because of God’s grace.
    Peace, and have a blessed Lord’s Day/

  24. How can I choose how many posts shown on my blogger homepage?

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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