The Righteousness of God in Both Old and New Perspectives

Does Justification still matter?[1] If it does, is it enough of a matter to fight over, or should we choose another battle?[2] Michael Horton asks these questions in light of some within the evangelical community who would answer in the negative. Case in point is Mark Noll, a leading evangelical historian of American Religious History. Noll argues that “things are not the way they use to be.”[3] Speaking for a large numbers of evangelicals, Noll’s contention is that the Reformation is over, that the Solas of the Reformation are no longer a bone of contention. Is he correct?

The purpose of this short academic essay is not to argue that the Reformation continues. I assume it to be the case. I also assume that the material cause of the 16th Century Reformation is still a bone of contention, that Justification still matters. I say this not only because of my own interests and personal piety, and not only in light of both the historical[4] and the contemporary[5] disconnect between RCC and the Reformed community (i.e., between the official dogma of Rome’s infused righteousness vs the Reformed view of imputed righteousness); I says this because of the intermural debate that rages among Protestants: that is between those within the Reformed, evangelical community who hold to the traditional view (or Old Perspective ) of Justification by faith vs the so called New Pauline Perspective (NPP) of Justification. The general thrust of this essay argues against the NPP represented by N.T. Wright in favor of the traditional perspective of Justification represented by John Piper; both men are scholars, pastors, and popular authors within evangelicalism, and Reformed circles, both of whom have been taken to task and have taken each other to task over this issue. The particular purpose of this essay is to look at one very important feature within this debate among theologians; that feature is the Righteousness of God. The Righteousness of God is the foundational/starting off point for both the traditional view and the NPP of Justification. So this essay will offer a critical/constructive analysis of both Wright and Piper pertaining to the righteousness of God.

 

The Righteousness of God According to Wright

 

In general the NPP is a particular reassessment of Justification within the trajectory of higher criticism[6], a recontextualization of the teachings of the NT. This higher critical recontextualization claims that the traditional view, the view that “works of the laws” qua both legalism and works righteousness (which has traditionally been interpreted as being at the heart of Paul’s polemical teaching) was all wrong. At the heart this reevaluation is the inclusion of the Gentiles as the covenant people of God along with “covenant badges”[7] of inclusion. Wright argues for a covenantal approach.[8] Wright situates Justification within ecclesiology not soteriology as traditionally understood. This move allows Wright to define his notion of righteousness in relation to said covenantal understanding.[9]

Wright states that there are options for defining or reinterpreting the meaning of the righteousness of God.[10] Out of the four possible options, Wright rules out “distributive justice” a la Luther and Kasemann’s “non-covenantal” understanding of God’s saving-creating power.[11] Wright favors a combination of both “covenant faithfulness” and “acts of covenant faithfulness.”[12] The former is distinguished grammatically as a “possessive genitive,” referring to God’s moral attribute of “covenant faithfulness” The latter he distinguishes as a “subjective genitive” of God’s actions of covenantal faithfulness. Both— that is, God’s attribute of faithfulness and His actions of faithfulness— identify so closely together to the point of erasing “…the line that separate the two senses.”

For Wright, the righteousness of God goes beyond the grammatical distinctions such as possessive and subjective genitive. The righteousness of God is (at its conceptual core) a demonstration of God’s covenantal faithfulness. In his exposition of Romans 1:16-17 he says that the gospel “…reveals or unveils God’s own righteousness, his covenant faithfulness, which operates through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for the benefit of all those who in turn are faithful (‘from faith to faith’).[13] So in other words, the gospel is the good news (proclamation) that God has kept his word; He promised to decisively end the evil that has corrupted all of creation, and to restore “justice, peace, and truth.”

This definition has a huge implication upon how we traditionally understand the imputed righteousness of Christ within a forensic context. When the sinner (defendant) is declared righteous, though he is forgiven, there is no moral reckoning of righteousness as in the traditional view. Contra the traditional view, Wright argues that when one is declared righteous[14] one is declared a member of the covenant. For Wright, covenant faithfulness is not the same as the righteousness that humans possess[15] when they are declared members of the covenant. In another place he explains:

In the Hebrew law court the judge does not give, bestow, impute, or impart his own “righteousness” to the defendant. That would imply that the defendant was deemed to have conducted a case impartially, in accordance with the law, to have punished sin and upheld the defenseless innocent ones. “Justification, of course, means nothing like that. “Righteousness” is not a quality or substance that can be thus passed to or transferred from the judge to the defendant. The righteousness of the judge is the judge’s own character, status, activity, demonstrated in doing these various things. The “righteousness” of the defendant is the status they possess when the court has found in their favor. Nothing more, nothing less. When we translate these forensic categories back into their theological context, that of the covenant, the point remains fundamental: the divine covenant faithful is not the same as human covenant membership.[16]

This statement is important in that it explain Wright’s understanding of the nature of the righteousness of God. Said righteousness is his own righteousness, a righteousness God does not share, nor impute to members of the covenant. We can say that the righteousness of God is incommunicable, while the traditional perspective is a communicable or shared righteousness. My point is that the difference between Wright’s notion and the traditional “old perspective” is one of kind, not only degree. In other words, the righteousness of God is God’s faithfulness to His own covenant.[17] God is the keeper of the promise. In contradistinction, human righteousness by faith in Christ is about those whom benefit from God keeping His promise—that is those who are members within the covenant that God made and keeps![18]

 

The Righteousness of God According to Piper

 

In contrast to Wright, John Piper argues in favor of a traditional perspective for Paul in general,[19] over-and-against Wright’s NPP in particular.[20] Piper notes three categorical problems with how Wright arrives at his conclusion that the imputed righteousness of God to a guilty defendant is an error. The first problem he sees, that drives Wright to conclude that Paul does not teach an imputed righteousness, is with Wright’s logic.[21] Piper contends that Wright’s mistake begins with how he defines the righteousness of God, defined functionally as keeping covenant, judging impartially, dealing with sin, and advocating for the helpless.[22] He correctly notes that this is what righteousness does, not what righteousness is. Piper argues that this “limited,” functional definition distorts Wright’s reading of Paul, making the idea of imputation “a category mistake,” because the idea of a judge imputing his own “impartiality” to “a plaintiff” seems nonsensical.[23]

Piper critiques Wright’s view by observing the shallow nature of his definition, shallow in the sense that it doesn’t go far (or deep) enough. Wright is correct to say that God’s righteousness obliges Him to be faithful to his covenant promises by standing up for the oppressed and dealing justly with the oppressor. But Piper also correctly observes that God’s love and faithfulness and goodness induce Him as well. So Piper asks an important question: “What is it about God’s righteousness that incline him to act in these ways?”[24] What Piper is getting at is an ontological definition of righteousness (צְדָקָה) not functional definition regarding what God’s righteousness does (צִדְק֥וֹת ).[25] For Piper the deeper means of righteousness is stated as:

God’s righteousness is his unwavering allegiance to do what is right, that is, most ultimately, to uphold the infinite worth of his glory. The same holds true in principle for our moral righteousness. We were created to have this same unwavering allegiance to uphold the infinite worth of God’s glory in all we do. That is what it means for a human being to be righteousness.[26]

 

Before I go on to Wright’s dismissal of Piper definition, let us take a look at his definition. I am not sure if Piper has given us an ontological definition. Righteousness is still a “do[ing] what is right.” The “right” is based upon something ontological or internal to God: that is His glory. Piper does seem to be an improvement to Wright. Also, this has implication on defining human righteousness. Just as God is right in his unwavering allegiance to uphold his glory, the glory being the ontological standard within God Himself qua divine character/morality, likewise human morality qua righteousness is define by an unwavering allegiance to uphold the dignity and honor of God. If this is what Paul means by the Righteousness of God then we can say that such a righteousness via the active righteousness/obedience of Christ Jesus imputed to sinners by grace through faith would not be a categorical error. It would make sense. Jesus was all about upholding the honor and glory of God. And if such a moral righteousness were imputed to us then that would be a restoration of the very image/imitation of God in man. Let’s see if this bears out.

For Wright, he dismisses it with a few off handed remarks. He claims that Piper ignores the “mass of scholarly literature on the meaning of God’s righteousness.”[27] Then he claims that he is unaware of such a novel approach at defining God’s righteousness in both Greek and Hebrew from scholars on both camps on the divide: old or new perspectives, Catholic or Reformed, evangelical or “anyone” who contextualizes the righteousness of God as “God’s concern for his glory.” But in contradistinction he does say that the:

…widespread view is that tsedaqah/dikaiosyne in general…refers to ‘conformity with a norm,’ and when this is further contextualized as God’s ‘righteousness’ the strong possibility is that this refers to God’s fidelity to the norms he himself has set up, in other words, the covenant….Of course, when God acts in faithfulness to his own promises, the result is his name, his honor and his reputation being magnified or glorified. Nobody would deny that. But nowhere is it clear that ‘God’ righteousness’ actually denotes that glorification. Piper’s attempt to show that there must be a ‘righteousness’ behind God’s ‘covenant faithfulness’ actually is simply unconvincing. [28]

When Wright says— “of course, when God acts in faithfulness to his own promises, the result in his name, his honor and his reputation being magnified or glorified. Nobody would deny that. But nowhere is it clear that ‘God’s righteousness’ actually denotes that glorification”—does he mean to say that God’s concern for the honor and dignity of His name is tangential to God’s concern to keep his promise for the honor and dignity and reputation of His covenant people, that is for their namesake?  If Wright means what he says then his approach is most anthropocentric, while Piper’s is theocentric. Also, when Wright says that the righteousness of God denotes or points to something beyond itself as God’s covenant keeping, but not the concern for His honor and glory—does he mean that covenant keeping is the ultimate intent of God, while God’s name being honored is an unintended “result,” a good byproduct, a sort of divine serendipity? It seems that if God’s name is honored via righteousness it would not be some byproduct. The byproduct would be God’s keeping His promises as a result of God’s righteousness in upholding the glory and honor of His own name. Wright’s notion is simply backward.

Interestingly enough, Wright alludes to Piper’s Justification of God as “his much fuller treatment elsewhere,” but oddly enough does not engage this “much fuller treatment” at all. But in this treatment Piper (so to speak) connects the dots, contextualizing the righteousness of God as the concern for his glory. Like Wright, Piper too acknowledges that the “cluster of words built on (צָדֵק) refers to ‘adherence to a norm’…signify[ing] ‘the state of correspondence to an objective norm.’”[29] Piper foot notes a number of scholars who “stress the norm-character of righteousness.” One in particular defines righteousness as “that standard which God maintains in the world. It is the norm by which all must be judged.”[30] David Novak suggests that when the term justice (mishpat) is coupled with righteousness (tsedequa) in the Hebrew Scriptures both are denoting the concept of “correct justice.” I would argue that complete justice is a better rendering than correct, in the sense that justice is incomplete and can only be improved where and when there is righteousness.[31] What Piper is saying (and Novak and many others concur) is that righteousness denotes a moral standard of justice in maintaining both the social order and morality which entails the social order of the covenant and covenant keeping, but it’s more than that; it’s essentially a term that denotes a norm, not covenant qua relationship/agreement.

However, Piper notes that though this traditional insight has not been abandoned by many contemporary exegetes, a new emphasis has emerged. The new emphasis transposes a moral norm into the register of relationship, that is to say contractual notions of mutual obligations. Righteousness is not a relationship to an ideal norm, but “mutual fulfillment of [agreed up] claims.”[32] Krasovec for instance says:

An analysis of passages containing words denoting God’s righteousness (sdq/

sdqh) shows that the fundamental meaning of the Hebrew word always remains

essentially the same. It designates God’s redemptive plan and fidelity to a faithful

people, God’s steadfast love, redemptive help and victory against oppressors.

God’s righteousness is an expression of a loving God’s attitude towards the covenant people, an attitude which is based on God’s sovereignty and is independent of human norms, knowledge and merit. God’s righteousness is valid for all members of the covenant people but only under the condition that they respond with fidelity and confidence.[33]

Piper does not argue that both the normative and covenantal hermeneutics are mutually exclusive. In fact he states that the latter has served as a corrective to righteousness qua distributive/retributive justice.[34] However, many exegetes (including Piper) have stayed with the normative understanding of righteousness because of the Old Testament usage of righteousness. Case in point is Lev 19: 36: “You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah and just hin.” Here Piper notes that a righteous weight conforms to a standard of measure, i.e. an objective norm.[35] Because of how righteousness is used in the Old Testament, he holds to a normative hermeneutic; yet Piper excludes a strictly tendentious reading of righteousness as distributive/retributive. He notes that righteousness is multivalent—it includes “deliverance” (Psa. 51: 14) in spite of guilt; Psa. 143: 1,2 equates God’s righteousness qua faithfulness to the unfaithful, i.e. mercy. In short Piper rules “out the idea that God’s righteousness is an impartial conformity to a norm by which each man gets his due.”[36]

In light of this, Piper holds to an alternative interpretation. He does not deny that righteousness is never found in the context of “covenant.” It’s just that it is seldom found in said context. He argues that the righteousness of God is not limited to either the norm of distributive justice or “covenant faithfulness.” He argues “…that, while God’s allegiance to the covenant is a real manifestation of God’s righteousness, nevertheless the [sic] most fundamental characteristic of God’s righteousness is his allegiance to his own name, that is, to his honor and glory.”[37] Piper quotes a number of passages depicting the “righteous deeds of God” done out of respect for His name. Ps. 31:1-3 relates verse 1 as the righteousness of God acting for his own name sake in verse 3. In Daniel 9:7, 13-19 Piper says that “When Daniel prays that Israel’s deliverance would accord with God’s ‘righteous acts’ (verse 16) and that is ‘for Thine own sake’ (verses 17, 19), he implies that the most fundamental characteristic of divine righteousness is God’s unswerving allegiance always to act for his own name sake.” He argues in Isa 43: 6,7 and Isa 49:3 that God upholds his elect not ultimately for the sake of his covenant promise, but “for the sake of His glory.”[38] In Jeremiah 14: 7, 9, 20f Piper shows very clearly that God’s covenant faithfulness is “penultimate” to the “ultimate” ground of God’s saving intervention, that is, “to the praise and glory for God.” He concludes that there is adequate evidence to affirm his thesis regarding the biblical notions of the righteousness of God and that is:

The righteousness of God consists most basically in God’s unwavering commitment to preserve the honor of his name and display his glory. Thus if God ever abandoned this commitment and no longer sought in all things the magnifying of his own glory, then there indeed would be unrighteousness in God.[39]

In conclusion, Piper makes a strong biblical case for a biblical notion of the righteousness of God commensurate with the traditional Pauline perspective. His argument reminds me of St Anselm’s when he said:

Again, if there is nothing greater or better than God, there is nothing more just than supreme justice, which maintains God’s honor in the arrangement of things, and [sic] which is nothing else but God himself…. Therefore [sic] God maintains nothing with more justice that the honor of his own dignity.[40]

In Chapter XIII of Cur Deus Homo, from which the broader context of this quote is taken, St. Anselm speaks in terms of justice. St. Anselm speaks in terms of justice as both “the order of things” or the “arrangement of things,” on the one hand, and, on the another, justice as honor due to God which Anselm explains as being simply “God himself.” We see that ultimate justice is concerned about the proper social order, but one defined in relationship to God. Proper order is defined as humanity honoring God. We can say that the social condition or (more precisely) the economy of a rightly ordered society is constitutive of ultimate justice, but the social economy or condition of humanity of a rightly ordered society is secondary to the divine economy of God. This divine economy of God takes moral precedent over-and-above the social conditions of a rightly ordered society. What is this divine economy? Anselm contends that it is “God himself,” i.e., the person of God. The person of God is the “honor of his own dignity.” Anselm notes that honor is something due to God. In other words, (to put it in the parlance of the moral discourse of rights) God has a claim-right to honor. Honor is the respect due to God which is commensurable to God’s inherent worth or dignity. In short God’s divine rights are His claims to honor: the cardinal claim-rights of worship and obedience etc. What St. Anselm is describing is theologically identical to what Piper is arguing: God’s number one purpose/passion/zeal is to uphold His glory. In biblical parlance, it’s nothing less that the Righteousness of God.

 

 

 

 End Notes

[1] Michael Horton, conclusion to Justified: Modern Reformation Essays on Justification, by Michael Horton, ed. by Ryan Glomsrud and Michael Horton (Modern Reformation, 2010), 102-113.

[2] Michael Horton, “What’s All The Fuss About? The Status Of The Justification Debate,” Modern Reformation 2, no. 11, (March/Spring 2002): 17-21.

[3] Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is The Reformation Over: An Evangelical Assessment Of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 14.

[4] Anthony Lane, Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue (Edinburgh: T &​ T Clark, 2002), 52.

[5] Kung, Justification (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), LXViii. Kung attempts to, in his landmark study on Justification in Karl Barth, attempts a Protestant-Catholic rapprochement via Barth as a representative of Protestantism.

[6] David C. Sim, “Further Evidence Of An Anti-Pauline Perspective,” New Testament Studies 53, no. 3 (2007, July 1): 325-343. When the author says “Anti-Pauline Perspective” he means to says Anti-Pauline Perspective qua Traditional Perspective in general. The abstract reads: “The reactional pericope in Matt 7.21–23, in which Jesus the final judge condemns certain false Christians, can and should be viewed as an anti-Pauline text. Those rejected by the Matthean Jesus are none other than Paul and those of his circle. This identification is indicated not only by their description as workers of lawlessness, but also by their defence that they are true Christians because they prophesy, work miracles and perform exorcisms in the name of Jesus. These charismatic activities were clearly associated with Paul and/​or his churches.”

[7] E. P and Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (London: SCM, 1977). Sanders is one of the founders of NPP. He coined the term “covenantal nomism.” arguing that one same in by grace but stayed in by works. Sanders comes to this conclusion (in part) by a mono-covenantalism which conflates the two covenants of works (Suzerain treaty) and grace (Royal grant).

[8] Michael Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 35. Horton articulates a classical/biblical notion of covenant. Wright’s notion is foreign to this.

[9] N.T. Write, “The Letter To The Galatians: Exegesis And Theology,” in Between Two Horizons, ed. B Green and Max Turner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 233-34.

[10] Tom Wright, What St Paul Really Said, first edition (Oxford, ENGLAND: Lion Hudson Plc, 1997), 100-111.

[11] Ibid., 103

[12] Gerald L Stephens, “The Righteousness of God: Frontiers in Pauline Research,” Criswell Theological Review 2, (2015, Spring): 59. Stephens calls Wright’s approach a “Covenantal Hermeneutic.”

[13] Ibid., 109.

[14] N. T. Wright, “Justification By (Covenantal) Faith To The (Covenantal) Doers: Romans 2 Within The Argument Of The Letter,” The Covenant Quarterly 72,. Wright argues that (in part) that future Justification is based on works, while present justification is based on faith. In this article Wright mixes and confuses Justification and Sanctification, declaration and transformation.

[15] N. T Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 110. Wright states that the “phrase has routinely been understood in terms of the righteous status which the covenant god reckons or ‘imputes’ to believers, but this interpretation then regularly leaves the verse dangling off the edge of the argument.”.

[16] N. T. Wright, “Romans and the Theology of Paul,” in Pauline Theology, ed. David M. Hay and E. Elizabeth Jonson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 3:30-50.

[17] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 271.

[18] N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 465, 492.

[19] John Piper, Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9: 1-23, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993).

[20] John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton, ILLINOIS: Crossway Books, 2007).

[21] Ibid., 62-71.

[22] Ibid., 62.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid. 63.

[25] Ibid., 78.

[26] Ibid.

[27] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plane and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 64.

[28] Ibid., 64-65.

[29] Piper, Justification, 105.

[30] Ibid., see footnote 9.

[31] David Novak, Natural Law of Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 41.

[32] Piper, Justification, 105.

[33] Joze Krasovec, “Justification of God in His Word in Psa. 51: 6 And Rom 3:4,” Vetus testamentum 3, (2014, January 01): 418.

[34] Piper, Justice, 106.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., 107.

[37] Ibid, 112.

[38] Ibid., 114-115.

[39] Ibid., 119.

[40] St. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo trans. Sidney Noron Deane (Texas: Fort Worth: RDMc Publishing, 1996), 43.

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Christ has won the Battle for Us!!

Romans 6:11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6:11 ESV)

The New Year is here!! And with the New Year comes a plethora of New Year’s resolutions: spend time with family, get more fit, quit drinking….etc. I recently read a “top-ten” of New Year’s resolutions that was based upon the Ten Commandments for Christians. Comparing a believer’s New Year’s resolution with an unbeliever’s… got me thinking: what is the difference? What is the difference between a believer’s resolution to struggle visavis an unbeliever’s struggle? Jerry Bridges in an article in Modern Reformation says:

Unbelievers do not struggle with sin. They may seek to overcome some bad habit, but they do not see that habit as sin. They do not have a sense of sin against a holy God. Believers, on the other hand, struggle with sin as sin. We see our sinful words, thoughts, and deeds as sin against God; and we feel guilty because of it. This is where we must continue to go back to the gospel. To consider ourselves dead to sin is to believe the gospel.

Bridges couldn’t be more right!! Unbelievers are not aware of sin qua sin, that is, sin as sin against God. Unbelievers are aware that things do go-awry; all that is needed is a New Year’s rebooting to start afresh, to rid ourselves of all the bad habits and all the junk-mail that slow-down our lives. By contrast, believers are aware that sin is much deeper than bad habits. We know that a moral resolution of habituation every year or even every day will not suffice. We know that we need grace. Grace is not just for non-believers, but for believers as well. Year after year, month after month, week after week, day after day—we must be reminded, and we must believe that we are dead to sin: that is to say to both the guilt and the dominion of sin. If we really believed this we would struggle with a resolute confidence knowing that we are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” D.A. Carson describes the Christian struggle this way:

People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.

Carson is right. Holiness is hard work and it takes great effort on our part. But we must never forget that we can be confident that our hard work will pay off if we remember that our efforts are held up by grace, that God preserves us in our perseverance. Joel Beeke nicely describes the Christian confidence this way:

As believers, Christ stands on the shores of our lives as we sail over the rough winds and waves. He will never let us go beyond the scope of His high-priestly eye; He will always bear us up on His high-priestly shoulders; He will never remove us from His high-priestly heart; we are never beyond the reach of His high-priestly hands; and we are never omitted from His high-priestly intercessions. What a Savior! In Him, we can finish 2015 well, and enter 2016 with confidence and security.

Whatever your resolution this year, be resolved to go back to the great gospel of God in Christ! May we struggle to be better Christians, knowing that Christ has already won our battle for us.

 

Solus Christus (in Christ Alone!)

G. Carl Moore

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Love’s pure light!

Silent night, Holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth!

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”—Nelsen Mandela

Mandela was a great humanitarian and civil rights leader for the people of South Africa, a moral virtuoso! But he had too high a view of human nature and human moral ability. For the unregenerate, hate is more natural; love is most unnatural. You cannot change the human heart by naively teaching people to love and not hate. Until the depraved human heart is reconciled to God by way of regeneration (i.e. being born again from above by the Spirit of Christ Jesus), and no longer hostile to God, then and only then can human beings truly learn to love his and her fellow man as he or she ought!

This is why Jesus came as a baby in the manger. Our Lord God incarnate– the second Person of the Trinity, as the Son of God enfleshed– came to put an end to hate and hostility. He came first to announce the beginning of the end of hostility between humanity and God. The reason why there is hate and there is hostility between our fellow man is because of the hostility between humanity and God. That is the source of our hate for one another. Yet while we were enemies to God, He vouchsafed His love to us! This is what Christmas is all about!!

During this Holy Season of Advent and Christmas may God’s radiance beam from the holy face of the Son of God as His love, love’s pure light, of redeeming grace infuses us with supernatural love  as grace changes our hearts to love and not hate.

Soli Deo Gloria

G Carl Moore

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The Worth of Human Life? It’s priceless!

In one of his books, the great preacher and teacher Leslie Weatherhead tells about visiting some friends who had an old dog named Pete. Pete was in sad shape. He tottered about, had a raw spot on his back, and arthritis in his joints. Weatherhead asked his friends, “Why don’t you have Pete put to sleep?” “Oh no,” they said, “Pete is Mike’s dog.” Mike was their son who was away at the university. “If we put old Pete to sleep, what would we say when Mike came home and looked for his beloved dog? We couldn’t bear to say to him, ‘oh, we put him to sleep because he was such a bother and he wasn’t worth saving.”‘

“Not worth saving?” That was the label that Weatherhead could hang on old Pete, but not the parents because of their love for Mike and Mike’s love for old Pete. Love is a heavily value laden term, especially objects of sentimental value. The old dog Pete may not be loved by us but he’s definitely loved and valued by Mike. Can you imagine some cynical angel, like Weatherhead, looking down on the world and saying, “I don’t see why God keeps those mangy humans around? Look how they disobey. Look how wretched most of them are. Why don’t you just wipe them out? They aren’t worth saving!”  Morally speaking, we deserve the moral description of being mangy, but the reason why God doesn’t put us down, so to speak, is because our value is based on God’s benevolent love for us. We are God’s creation, made in His image and by virtue of this– human life is sacred because God is sacred; human life is priceless because God is of infinite value and all human life reflects the image of God.

So why does God give us a commandment that all cultures from one degree to another agree that murder (the unlawful taking of a human life) is wrong? Is God being superfluous? By no means!! God (in what some consider stating the obvious) is reinforcing the idea that human life is sacred. If there is no God, all things are permissible… even murder! Apart from God, there is nothing left but (as the late John Paul stated), a culture of death.

A culture of death surrounded ancient Israel. Not only was animal sacrifices acceptable, but also human sacrifice. One of these pagan gods was Moloch. This demon (which Moloch represented) demanded child sacrifice, a practice that ancient Israel picked up. These pagan gods in general reflected the blood thirsty culture of death. It was in the midst of this culture of death that God commands Israel to value life. The term used in the Hebrew is RATZACH; this Hebrew word is never used in connection to the lawful execution of a death penalty or the kind of killing that takes place when a soldier is in a life and death situation that demands killing, nor is this word ever used in connection with hunting or killing animals for cultic reasons. What the bible forbids is not killing, but the unlawful killing of a human being: “You shall not murder.” This ranges from premeditated, cold blooded murder, from voluntary manslaughter (crimes of passion) to involuntary manslaughter (unintentional deaths).

More and more we are living in a culture of death. In our secular and pragmatic society, innocent life is no longer sacred; the value of human life is grounded in its usefulness. If one’s life is no longer useful, but in fact becomes a burden on society, or if one’s life is defective (of no use), then it’s time to abort and sell the parts that are useful. Dr.Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values, has said, “Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person.” Singer, who is considered the father of the international animal rights movement, has said that children less than one month old have no human consciousness and do not have the same rights as others. (Religion Today, 4/19/99). Even recently in the news we have seen the obscene and callous nature of Planned Parenthood, relegating the value of little aborted babies to the usefulness of their body parts. What is evil about both Planned Parenthood and Dr. Singer and his wicked statement is that personhood is connected to function. If our usefulness is radically compromised then our humanity is dehumanized beneath that of a common beast: ready for the slaughter house, while body parts are auctioned to the highest bidder!

How should we understand this from God’s perspective? Let me share a very important distinction between God’s love and human love.

G K Chesterton notes the difference between human beings loving what we create versus God loving what he creates! He noted that we can only truly love what we create after it comes into being. We can tear down a house halfway and no big deal. But it’s not until a house becomes a home that we have a strong emotional connection. Not so with God. God loves what he creates before it comes into being.

Question—is a baby a human product, something humans construct, not worthy of love until it comes into full being, like a house that can be torn down half way through construction? Or is a baby a divine creation deserving love before he or she is born? Which is it? The answer is obvious.

In conclusion, during the 1840’s in the Fiji Islands of the Pacific, a man was worth $7. You could buy a man for a musket. After you bought him you could starve him, work him, whip him or eat him. Cannibalism was very popular in those regions. But if you went to the Fiji Islands forty years later you could not buy a man for $7 million. What had made the difference? Heroic missionaries like John G. Paton had brought the Gospel. Twelve hundred Christian chapels were scattered over the islands. The people had learned to read a book which says, “You shall not murder.” They had learned to see persons through the eyes of Christ. As we put on Christian lenses and focus on them as persons, killing will stop and God’s Kingdom will draw nearer. What is a human life worth? It’s priceless!!

Soli Deo Gloria

Carl

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Becoming Christ Centered

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,

(Phi 2:1-5 ESV)

The Rev. Emyrs Tyler, moderator of Susquehanna Valley Presbytery for 2015, has written a very good article for the Presbytery this month.

Emyrs astutely notes:

Every program for church renewal says it in some form or another, whether it’s Acts 16:5 or New Beginnings or Natural Church Growth. Every method for recentering Christ’s Church addresses the problem of asking the wrong question….What do I do now? is a radically different question than What is God doing in me right now? The first invites us to plan, schedule, and evaluate based results. The second considers every interruption a divine opportunity.

Emyrs is right: every “program” for church renewal deals with the problem of asking wrong questions. Wrong questions look to programs, that is, things we do: planning, scheduling, and evaluating what we do, while utilizing scarce resources of time, money, and people. Programs are not bad in and of themselves; in fact programs are essential in channeling renewal and growth. However, programs are never a means (or especially the source), of renewal.

Renewal requires recentering, putting first things first. Renewal requires asking the right question, not of doing but being: not “what shall I do?” but “what should I be?”

What do I mean? Dr. Sinclair Ferguson helps to illustrate the difference between doing and being:

Years ago, I had a somewhat painful encounter with this “tell us and we’ll do it” mentality. Halfway through a Christian students’ conference where I was speaking on the assigned theme “Knowing Christ,” I was summoned to meet with a deputation of staff members who seemed to feel duty-bound to confront me with the inadequacies of my first two expositions of Scripture.

“You have addressed us for two hours,” they complained, “and yet, you have not told us one single thing to do.”

Impatience to be doing hid impatience with the apostolic principle that it is only in knowing Christ that we can do anything (cf. Phil. 3: 10; 4: 13)—or so it seemed to me at the time.

Renewal requires asking “what should I be?” Renewal requires answering with a number of robust questions and answers: “I should be like Christ!” “But how do I become like Christ?” “I become like Christ by knowing Him!” This is the key: by knowing Christ, we become like Christ; by becoming like Christ we are then able to do. Knowing Christ is not knowledge about Christ. It includes this, but it is much more. Knowledge means intimate relationship and conformity to Christ. We are in Christ, and Christ is in us. There is a deep transformative interpenetration. Like Paul, we long to know Christ by the transformative power of His resurrection (building up) in our lives, and by sharing in the transformative power of his suffering (tearing down). In short God transforms us by breaking us and then building us up, by afflicting us in our comfort of self-satisfaction, pride, and impatience, and then by comforting us in our affliction with words of forgiveness, bringing hope, patience, and satisfaction in Him.

The cycle of breaking us down and building us up is the only method or source of renewal. This continual cycle of breaking and building is the only way Christ remains center, and is the only method of recentering Christ in us and in His Church. The cycle of breaking and building is not something we do, but what is done to us by Christ conforming us to His image. As John Piper says, “As we are conformed to the image of Christ, he is made more and more the center of all things.”

This is our method of renewal: conforming to the image of Christ. As you ponder this, ask yourself these questions. Am I being conformed to the image of Christ? Is your church being conformed in Christ’s image? The way to know this is by answering more penetrating questions: in humility are we counting others MORE significant than ourselves, or are conceit and rivalry among us? Are we looking out for the interests of others in collaboration with our own interests (that is, loving others as we love ourselves), or are we pitting our interests against others in the body of Christ (that is, loving ourselves at the expense of others)?  Do we have the same mind? Do we have the same love? All of the best music programs in the world won’t renew a church where division, rivalry, conceit abound! Division, rivalry, and conceit are all evidence of a self-centered, not Christ-centered church. May we strive to become more Christ-centered in our lives and in our churches!

Selah (Reflect on this.)

Carl

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Direction Not Perfection

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

(Isa 6:1 ESV)

Last month you will recall we dealt with the theme of assurance, assurance of salvation. Assurance of salvation is an important theme in Scripture. However, too often we look in the wrong direction for our assurance. Too often we look to our past experiences: our coming down the aisle to make an emotional profession of faith, or signing a card, or saying the “sinner’s prayer.” These are all examples of past experiences we can remember. But there are also past experiences we don’t remember: being baptized as an infant before the church or being dedicated to God before the church as a baby. These are all past experiences. But, as I have noted on occasion in the pulpit, our “experience” does not save us. God saves us.

But if we have had a saving experience (conversion) with God then there will be present evidence to the fact of such an experience. Case in point, if I was derelict in my duty to lead worship service next Sunday at my church by not showing up to preach or anything that Sunday, and then apologized to my parishioners and the leadership for not showing up that Sunday, would they not want a reason? What if I told them that the reason why I did not show up was because, while driving the night before on I-81, I was involved in a car accident? I explain that a Mack truck hit me head on traveling 80 miles an hour. Would they believe me, especially in light of the fact that neither I, nor my car, had a scratch on us?

Let’s be honest. You and they would think either I was delusional, or I was the biggest liar. If I had a head on encounter with a Mack truck then there would be some evidence. If this is true of a truck, then how much more for God who is infinitely more impactful than a tractor and trailer? Above all, God is holy. In fact God is not only holy; and God is not only holy, holy. But God is holy, holy, holy. The prophet Isaiah came in contact with an infinitely holy God. The impact of that event changed Isaiah. Before his tongue was impure; now he can speak with prophetic purity. Before he was racked with justifiable guilt and shame and blame; now he is guiltless and faultless and blameless. Prior to this, Isaiah was prideful and hopeless; now Isaiah is humble and hopeful. This does not mean Isaiah was perfect; perfection in this life is impossible. As John Macarthur says, “It’s not perfection, but direction.” God impacted Isaiah. This impact radically changed Isaiah’s bearings or orientation. We hear a lot these days of “orientation.” Some orientations are more radical than others, some so radical we think they are inseparable from who we are. Of all these orientations, the deepest and most radical is our sinful nature. When God has had an impact on us, like Isaiah, we will not come out unscratched. God seizes us, turns us, and changes us from the inside out. We are marked by repentance!

In conclusion, assurance of salvation is the primary theme of the Epistle of 1st John. In light of this theme, John gives us evidences or marks of assurance that we can point to in the present to show that in fact we have been and are saved. John’s method to gain assurance is by looking at our present pursuit of holiness. Ask yourself, “how is my present pursuit of holiness? Does my pursuit of happiness trump my pursuit of holiness?” This does not mean true Christians can’t seriously fall into sin, but it’s never total or final. Read 1st John. Prayerfully ask yourself these questions. As you do, don’t look to your perfection, but your direction.

Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone)

Carl

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From Ugly Duckling To Lovely Swan!

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.

(Psa 51:12 ESV)

Someone has said that there are two kinds of people: those who say there are two kinds of people and those who do not. D. James Kennedy once quipped that “there are three kinds of people: those who can count and those who can’t.” We can all agree it’s unfair to put people in tight, tidy little categories. Putting people in categories does not do justice to the complexity of what it means to be human.

However, I think some typologies are useful, especially when it deals with the spiritual/moral state or condition of a person. Jesus taught that there were only two kinds of people: saved and unsaved. He used metaphors from the world of agriculture: goats (unsaved people) versus sheep (saved people); weeds versus wheat. So, Jesus taught that there are only two spiritual/moral conditions. But, even though there are only two spiritual states—i.e. spiritual death and spiritual life—there are differences in how we perceive these spiritual states or conditions. The story of “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Anderson captures this well. Just as the little swan thought he was a mallard, likewise could there be sheep who think they are goats? The clear teaching of Scripture is yes!

In light of this Dr. R.C. Sproul believes that there are four types of people. First, there are those who believe they are saved by grace, and are in fact saved by grace. Second, there are those who do not believe they are saved by grace, and are in fact not saved by grace. These first two groups are aware of their spiritual condition. However, there are two other types of people (type three and type four) who are not aware of their spiritual condition. The third type of person, though truly saved by grace, is not sure whether he or she is saved by grace. Then there is our fourth type. There are people who truly believe they are saved by grace, but in fact are not.

St John penned his first letter (1 John) when he was as an aged apostle, an apostle who had a pastor’s heart. John explains why he wrote his first letter. He says: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1Jo 5:13 ESV). Pretty simple. John is saying that he is writing to that third type of person who, though saved, is not aware that he or she is saved, or at least not totally sure or not as deeply rooted in confidence. Such people live their lives as ugly ducklings, though in reality they are beautiful swans in the eyes of God.

In conclusion, in the near future I will be preaching (in my own church) an expository sermon series through the first letter of John. My purpose is the same as John’s original purpose: that is to confirm my parishioners in their faith with these four typologies in mind. My hope is that through this study they may (like King David) have the joy of their salvation restored from ugly ducklings to lovely swans! If you are an ugly duckling may God confirm you as His swan!

Soli Deo Gloria

Carl

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