Thursday, July 24, 2014

Faith or Faithfulness?

In recent Biblical scholarship there has been a push by certain circles to redefine the word "faith" as we know it in our Bibles to mean "faithfulness." That is, whenever you read in the Bible that we are justified through "faith", we are now told that we ought to understand this saying to mean we are justified through "faithfulness".

In English there is a difference between "faith" and "faithfulness", and there is a difference in the meaning of these words because in reality and experience these are two different things altogether. Who doesn't know the difference? Faithfulness is a word that focuses inside the self, but faith is a word that focused outside the self, upon an object that is being believed or trusted in. Faithfulness has to do with how reliable or trustworthy I am. Faith has to do with how reliable and trustworthy the object is that I am believing in.

Changing our understanding from "faith" to "faithfulness" greatly affects the meaning of the gospel. This is not a small interpretative issue. To say that we are saved through faithfulness is different than to say that we are saved through faith. The former makes it a self-focused salvation that is about our own reliability and work, while the latter is a God-focused salvation that is about looking away from ourselves and trusting in Christ's reliability and work.

I am unconvinced that when the Scriptures speak of "faith" we are to understand it as "faithfulness". Rather, the Scriptures are primarily speaking of "faith" as we know it in English, and not "faithfulness". "Faith" is a good translation, which is why it has been translated that way since the beginning. Lexically, the Greek word pistis--which is the word we translate as "faith"--means simply "persuasion" or "conviction", though secondarily it can mean "faithfulness". There is another Greek word which primarily means "faithfulness". Most Greek dictionaries favor "faith" as the meaning of pistis. Moreover, this definition evidently seems to be the obvious meaning by the way pistis is used in Scripture.

In Scripture, "faith" is related to that which is unseen, to hope, to God's promises, and is contrasted with doubting (Matt. 14:13, Mark 11:23, James 1:6). Faith is put "in/into" objects (Christ, Christ's words, God's promises, etc.) When we examine the contexts in which it is used it best makes sense to understand it as the English word "faith", not "faithfulness". For example, Thomas will not believe unless He puts his fingers in the wounds of Jesus. Jesus asks the father of the lunatic if he believes He can heal his son, and the man says, "I believe, help my unbelief." When the centurion says that Jesus only needs to say the word and his servant will be healed, Jesus says, "I haven't found faith like this in Israel!" In Hebrews 11, Moses is said to have endured hardships because He believed in the invisible promises of God. Thus his "faithfulness" to God and God's people was based upon his "faith" in the truth. The two are distinct. In 2 Chronicles 32:8 faith is described when the people of Judah "rest themselves upon the words of Hezekiah". That is, they believe his words. In Paul's commentary on Genesis 15:6, Paul shares how Abraham was "persuaded that what God had promised, God was able to perform, and therefore it was imputed unto him for righteousness." (Rom. 4:20-21) Abraham's faith was about Abraham trusting in what God said He would do; it was not about his own reliability, but his faith in God's reliability. Jesus regularly contrasted faith with unbelief: "Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?" The examples could go on and on, which show that "faith" and not "faithfulness" makes sense of the contexts.

In John 3 Jesus gives an analogy of believing in Him:

"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life." (John 3:14-15)

Christ and the bronze serpent are compared. Jesus was crucified and became sin for us. Whoever believes in Him will not perish but will have eternal life. In the Numbers account, the people were perishing, but simply looked to the bronze serpent and were healed. This story captures how salvation is not about our works and faithfulness--for we are saved and healed as unfaithful sinners who are perishing on account of our sins--but that it is all about looking to Christ by faith. It would be a stretch to say that this story has anything to do with a life-long process of faithfulness. This plain sense of the story can be clearly seen in the preaching of the apostles in the Book of Acts and in the explanations of the gospel in the epistles.

The only merging of the two concepts of "faith" and "faithfulness" that I can see as being possible in light of the use of faith in the Scriptures is that our "faith" should be "firm"; that is, we should have firm trust in God. But I cannot see how the meaning of "faith" can be "faithfulness", which focuses on ourselves and on our own reliability.

Thus, when the Scriptures say we are saved by grace through faith and not of works lest any man should boast, it means that we are saved by simply "believing the message of truth when we hear it" (Eph. 1:13), which, like Abraham's faith, gives God glory because we are proclaiming that He is trustworthy and is able to do what He promises, even for unreliable sinners!

As the author of Hebrews puts it:

"Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful." (Heb. 10:23)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

I Want to Be Called an Antinomian

Yes, that's right. I want to be called an antinomian.

Why? Because Jesus (Matt. 5:17, Luke 6:1-11), Stephen (Acts 6:13), and Paul (Acts 18:13, 21:28) were all called antinomians, and since they were called antinomians, I want to be called an antinomian.

To be called an antinomian means to be charged with being opposed to the law. Jesus and the early Christians were charged with being opposed to the law. Whatever they were saying and doing brought upon them this charge. I also want to say and do the same things that prompt others to charge me with being opposed to the law.

I want you to notice carefully my words. I want to be called an antinomian. I don't want to be an antinomian. Neither Jesus, Stephen, nor Paul were antinomians. They were not opposed to the law at all. They were actually unopposed to it. They preached the truth about the law. The upheld the law and its perfect standard and cooperated with the law to accomplish its purpose. They preached that all men are guilty before God, that no one will be justified before God by keeping the law, and that salvation is a gift from God, apart from the law, through faith alone in Jesus Christ. For this reason they were accused of antinomianism, but they were not actually antinomians. Therefore I also want to preach the truth and uphold the perfection of the law and cooperate with the law to accomplish its purpose. I want to preach that the law does not justify us but that it only shows us we are sinners, and I want to preach that we are not saved by keeping the law but through faith alone in Jesus Christ. Only if I do this will I be called an antinomian, and only if I do this will I actually not be an antinomian.

Real antinomians are those who don't uphold the perfection of the law and who preach that men must keep the law to be justified before God. Real antinomians are those who don't cooperate with the law to accomplish its purpose in showing that all men are sinners who need Christ for salvation. But real antinomians think that they aren't antinomians and accuse Christ and his followers of being antinomians.

So I want to be called an antinomian.

There are many Christians who don't want to be called antinomians, but they forget that this charge comes with being a follower of Christ. We cannot escape from this charge without changing Christ's message. Therefore those who seek to avoid being called antinomians change the message so that no one can accuse them of being antinomians. They cease from preaching the gospel in such a way that actually communicates the gospel message, that people are saved by grace through faith alone in Christ without obedience to the law, and are spared the humiliation of being labeled an antinomian. But you can only be spared from this charge when you stop preaching the gospel. Ironically, when you stop preaching the gospel you become an actual antinomian.

I want to be called an antinomian rather than actually be an antinomian. I want to stand with Jesus, Stephen, and Paul. This is why I say that I want to be called an antinomian.

Let's not be people who seek to avoid the false charges and slanders of the world, who never speak the truth lest we be misunderstood and maligned. Let's be followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, the most misunderstood person of all time, who patiently bore the charges and slanders of the world for the sake of the truth of the gospel. Let's proclaim the only salvation there is: that salvation is through faith alone in Jesus Christ and not through obedience to the law, even if we are accused of being antinomians. If we are called antinomians, then we are in good company, and are most likely doing something right.

A.T. Robertson on Repentance

The following is A.T. Robertson's comment on Matthew 3:2 from his Word Pictures in the New Testament. Robertson underscores the fact that the word "repentance" is a tragic mistranslation of the Greek word metanoia.

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"Repent (metanoeite). Broadus used to say that this is the worst translation in the New Testament. The trouble is that the English word “repent” means “to be sorry again” from the Latin repoenitet (impersonal). John did not call on the people to be sorry, but to change (think afterwards) their mental attitudes (metanoeite) and conduct. The Vulgate has it “do penance” and Wycliff has followed that. The Old Syriac has it better: “Turn ye.” The French (Geneva) has it “Amendez vous.” This is John’s great word (Bruce) and it has been hopelessly mistranslated. The tragedy of it is that we have no one English word that reproduces exactly the meaning and atmosphere of the Greek word. The Greek has a word meaning to be sorry (metamelomai) which is exactly our English word repent and it is used of Judas (Matt. 27:3). John was a new prophet with the call of the old prophets: “Turn ye” (Joel 2:12; Isa. 55:7; Eze. 33:11, Eze. 33:15)."

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For more information on metanoia, see The Great Meaning of Metanoia.

Book Review: "Justification" by N.T. Wright

N.T. Wright is a prolific author and his popularity continues to grow. His appeal is obvious when one reads any book of his, and "Justification" is no exception, for in this book, as well as his others, Wright has a powerful point. He emphasizes the need to connect the gospel with the larger story of the Bible, and points to the general lack in Christian circles of doing just this. To this concern we should all respond with a hearty amen. It is a critical question: How does the gospel of Jesus Christ fit with the promise God gave to Abraham and the larger story of the Bible? I truly applaud Wright's concern for this question. But when it comes to answering the question himself, Wright miserably fails. His handling of the Scriptures does justice to neither the gospel nor the larger story, leaving instead a confused, exegetical mess. Nor does Wright inform his readers about the excellent answers that have already been given by Christians to this question in the past. After reading Wright, if a person didn't know any better he would think that no one had ever entertained the question before Wright came along. Thus in "Justification", Wright fails to answer the question and fails to point us in the direction of answers.

The main problem is that Wright takes a single point that tends to be lacking in traditional Protestantism and emphasizes it beyond its due, reducing just about everything into what he thinks the connecting theme of the Bible is. He argues that the Reformers were wrong in their teaching on the gospel. The gospel, for Wright, is essentially nothing more than a program of racial integration. This program is supposed to be the connecting link of the Bible. Just about every possible text regarding the gospel of Christ is reduced to this program. The gospel, for Wright, is not about being saved from your sins through the death and resurrection of Christ; it's about the breakdown of Jew/Gentile distinctions. He is reactionary and, like all reactionary theology, goes too far with his emphasis. He grabs onto one true aspect of the gospel and makes that aspect everything, excluding the very gospel of Christ itself. Wright unfairly criticizes the Reformers and speaks too harshly about them throughout the whole book. The issue, however, is more complex than Wright says it is. The Reformers in fact discovered and understood the gospel (the most important thing of all, and woe to us if we lose it!): the gift of righteousness by faith alone in Jesus Christ which saves us from the coming wrath of God. For this they are to be honored, even if they were not as perceptive in their day to connect this truth with the bigger story of the Bible. However, the answer is not to throw away the true doctrine of imputed righteousness which the Reformers discovered, as Wright has done, but to better understand how that doctrine fits with the larger story (as it most certainly does). To throw away the Evangelical gospel would be the proverbial 'throwing away the baby with the bathwater'.

The thing that disturbed me the most about "Justification" is that Wright sucks the moral content out of Pauline theology. His definition of righteousness has nothing to do with man's moral status, but has solely to do with God's status, not as a moral God, but as a covenant-keeper, and concerning man, righteousness is nothing more than a statement of man's membership status in the covenant. Thus everything is reduced to non-moral covenantal terms. It almost seems like Wright speaks of morality with contempt. It would appear that the foundational teaching by Jesus on righteousness--the Sermon on the Mount--is non-existent for Wright. Had he taken it into consideration, he would have understood that righteousness is the determining factor as to whether a man enters the kingdom of heaven or not, and that it is decisively moral. Wright's interpretation of Galatians utterly ignores the connection between Galatians 2:16 and 3:10, as well as the Deuteronimic context of Galatians 3:10, which is all about morality. Wright is also inconsistent throughout the book, denying one thing only to affirm it later. For example, he argues repeatedly that Abraham is not an example nor illustration of justification, as the Reformers say he is, but then on p. 209 he affirms that he is.

Wright's exegesis is not carefully executed verse by verse, but is very generally pieced together section by section; it sweeps, skips and leaps, grabbing onto words and thoughts and weaving them into the narrative that he has decided is there. His interpretations will not leave you with a clearer grasp of the epistles, but will leave you with a confused, non-intuitive picture.

In the book Wright has four main re-definitions that he argues for: 1) "the righteousness of God" should be defined as God's faithfulness to His covenant, 2) "justification" should be defined as our identification as covenant members, 3) "the works of the law" should be defined as Jewish ceremonies which mark you as God's people, not moral works. These ceremonial works are opposed with faith in Christ as the badge of membership, and 4) the Spirit's work in the lives of God's people should be understood as the cause of final justification. Wright fails to show how these ideas are connected in any real and organic way. Such definitions, even if there are elements of truth to them, fail to present the full Biblical truth contained in those words, and destroy the moral focus of Scripture, the true doctrine of justification, assurance of salvation, and makes the Spirit of God a magical force with no connection to the inspiration of love stemming from the truth of the gospel.

I do not recommend Wright's "Justification" at all for those who are wanting to understand the doctrine of justification as it is taught in the Bible. It is perhaps only useful for understanding the New Perspective debate. The best book by far on the theology of the death of Christ in the New Testament is James Denney's "The Death of Christ". Also indispensable is Denney's "The Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation." For understanding the connection between the gospel and the Abrahamic covenant, read "Israel in the Plan of God" by David Baron, "The Divine Unity of Scripture" by Adolph Saphir, as well as Saphir's "Christ and Israel". These men will explain clearly and beautifully how only the Reformed discovery of justification through faith fits exactly with God's promises to the great patriarch Abraham.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

George Herbert - The Agony

Here's a beautiful hymn by the Anglican George Herbert (1593-1633), who showed how the profoundest knowledge of both our sin and the love of God is obtained by contemplating the cross of Christ.

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The Agony

"Vain man has measured land and sea,
Fathomed the depths of states and kings,
O’er earth and heav’n explored his way:
Yet there are two vast spacious things,
To measure which doth more behove,
Yet few that sound them—sin and love.

Who would know sin, let him repair
To Calvary: there shall he see
A man so pained, that all his hair,
His skin, His garments bloody be!
Sin is that rack, which forces pain
To hunt its food through every vein.

Wouldst thou know love? behold the God,
The Man, who for thy ransom died:
Go taste the sacred fount that flowed
Fast-streaming from His wounded side!
Love is that liquor most divine,
God feels as blood, but I as wine." -- George Herbert