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I would very much like to see a film about Judah Maccabee and am sorry that Maccabees was withdrawn from the Revised King James Version in the early 19th century, possibly because Christian slaves read it as a metaphor for their own liberation. It’s a powerful story still available in the Roman Catholic editions of the Bible.

Mel Gibson wanted to make a film about Judah Maccabee, and journalist-turned-screenwriter Joe Eszterhas wrote a script. Then the project went pear-shaped. On April 18, 2012, the Telegraph reported:

Earlier this month, Joe Eszterhas, best known for his work on Basic Instinct, claimed that Gibson pulled out of directing The Maccabees, a film he had written about the biblical hero Judah Maccabee, because he “hates Jews” …

The Jewish community had expressed concerns about Gibson’s involvement with the film. In 2006, the actor was arrested for drink driving and an anti–Semitic outburst. He was also criticised for the negative portrayal of Jewish people in his 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ.

Gibson retorted that what Eszterhas had said amounted to “utter fabrications”. He added that “a man of principle” would have withdrawn from The Maccabees “regardless of the money” if he believed him to be anti-Semitic. Gibson told him: “I guess you only had a problem with me after Warner Brothers rejected your script.”

The article said that English actor Ray Winstone came to Gibson’s defence:

Winstone, talking to Mandrake [the paper’s celebrity reporter] at the West End premiere of Elfie Hopkins, was in no mood to distance himself from his old friend who appeared with him in Edge of Darkness.

“Listen, everyone has said something in the heat of the moment and all I can say is that when I met him, he was a complete and utter gentleman,” Winstone says at the Ciroc Vodka-sponsored premiere.

“When I was out in Boston with him and my Jewish mate Dr David Wechsler, we got on like a house on fire. My old mate David loved him to death. There are a lot of things Mel does to help people which he never talks about. The press don’t report that.”

An earlier Telegraph article directed readers to a Hollywood site, The Wrap, for a letter allegedly from Joe Eszterhas to Gibson, reproduced in full (language alert). The letter chronicles Eszterhas’s and his family’s alleged encounters with Gibson as well as the latter’s turbulent home life.

The saddest part for me were the final paragraphs, wherein it alleges that Gibson’s young daughter slapped him in the face. When Gibson allegedly asked her why she’d done it, she (allegedly) said, ‘I’m sorry, Daddy. I love you.’ Fact or fiction, children do pick up patterns about family life from an early age.

At the risk of showing my age, I well remember reading Rolling Stone when Eszterhas was Senior Editor between 1971 and 1975. The high points were the record reviews and Eszterhas’s investigative journalism. I used to save the best for last and savour his forensic examination of America’s socio-political scene. He wrote at length and as he found. His writing inspired me to research subject matter thoroughly, to dig deeper, because things aren’t always what they seem. His articles showed me that truth was stranger than fiction.

Therefore, it was with some disappointment that I discovered some years later that he went into screenwriting. Hmm. I rather wish that he had stayed in journalism, because, although his style is somewhat peripatetic and could use some tweaking, it is uniquely his and compels you to read on. When I read his alleged letter to Gibson, the style and length strongly resemble Eszterhas’s writing.

I hadn’t known until I read his Wikipedia profile that Eszterhas was actually born in Hungary and that his father was a Roman Catholic newspaper editor and author. But this really surprised me:

Eszterhas learned at age 45 that his father had hidden his collaboration in the Hungarian Nazi government and that he had “organized book burnings and had cranked out the vilest anti-Semitic propaganda imaginable.”[4]p.201

Imagine how Eszterhas must have felt on that day in 1990.  Since then, he has had no contact with his father.

In 2008, Eszterhas published a book, Crossbearer, which detailed his return to the Roman Catholic Church in 2001, when he broke down before God. The Toledo Blade interviewed him just before Crossbearer hit the shops giving us an idea of what happened seven years before (emphases mine):

He and his second wife, Naomi, had just moved from Malibu to a suburb of Cleveland – where he had grown up; she was from nearby Mansfield. They felt Ohio would be a better, more wholesome place to raise their four boys (he had two grown children from his first marriage).

A month after the move, Mr. Eszterhas was diagnosed with throat cancer. Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic removed 80 percent of his larynx, put a tracheotomy tube in his throat, and told him he must quit drinking and smoking immediately.

At age 56, after a lifetime of wild living, Mr. Eszterhas knew it would be a struggle to change his ways.

One hot summer day after his surgery, walking through his tree-lined neighborhood in Bainbridge Township, Mr. Eszterhas reached a breaking point.

“I was going crazy. I was jittery. I twitched. I trembled. I had no patience for anything. Every single nerve ending was demanding a drink and a cigarette,” he wrote.

He plopped down on a curb and cried. Sobbed, even. And for the first time since he was a child, he prayed: “Please God, help me.”

Mr. Eszterhas was shocked by his own prayer.

“I couldn’t believe I’d said it. I didn’t know why I’d said it. I’d never said it before,” he wrote.

But he felt an overwhelming peace. His heart stopped pounding. His hands stopped twitching. He saw a “shimmering, dazzling, nearly blinding brightness that made me cover my eyes with my hands.”

Like Saul on the road to Damascus, Mr. Eszterhas had been blinded by God. He stood up, wiped his eyes, and walked back home a new man.

In a phone interview this week, Mr. Eszterhas said it was “an absolutely overwhelming experience.”

Since then, he and his wife have been faithfully attending Mass. That doesn’t mean that he completely accepts the state of the Catholic Church today. And, yes, he did go to a Protestant church during his soul-searching time post-conversion:

When Mr. Eszterhas visited a nondenominational megachurch, he heard a sensational sermon. But he felt empty afterward, missing Holy Communion and the Catholic liturgy.

Eszterhas gave the Blade his thoughts on 21st century Catholicism:

He and Naomi decided they could not, in good conscience, donate a dime to the church because of the clerical sexual abuse scandal.

He also writes about the inner turmoil he felt when he took his boys to catechism classes or other church events and kept a protective eye on them the whole time, making sure they were never alone with a priest.

And he complains about priests’ homilies being boring and pointless.


Mr. Eszterhas told The Blade that despite his mixed feelings over the church and the abuse scandal, the power of the Mass trumps his doubts and misgivings.

The Eucharist and the presence of the body and blood of Christ is, in my mind, an overwhelming experience for me. I find that Communion for me is empowering. It’s almost a feeling of a kind of high.”

On his life pre-conversion:

He worked as a police reporter in Cleveland and “was always fascinated with the darkness. I covered countless shootings, urban riots, and in several situations I was there before police were because I had a police radio and used to drift around the city until something happened,” he said.

But after his spiritual transformation, he said, he had had enough of death, murder, blood, and chaos.

“Frankly my life changed from the moment God entered my heart. I’m not interested in the darkness anymore,” he said. “I’ve got four gorgeous boys, a wife I adore, I love being alive, and I love and enjoy every moment of my life. My view has brightened and I don’t want to go back into that dark place.”

He also told the Blade reporter that he has undergone an apparent miraculous healing of his throat as his oncologist said:

that my tissue had regenerated to the point where you cannot only not tell that there was ever any cancer there, but you can’t tell that there had been any surgery there.

Wow — what a story. I never knew that until today. Hollywood reporters never mention it. Eszterhas did say he wished that Hollywood studios would commission more Christian and family films. He said that the American public would love to see them. Perhaps this is why the Maccabees project inspired him so. Let’s hope he finds a new project in this regard.

A closing note on Crossbearer. From the reader reviews, it would appear that the book is written in a style which will appeal more to Catholics than to Protestants. I’m not talking about theology as much as I am the narrative itself, which is peppered with language or situations that conservative and orthodox Protestants would not expect from a regenerate Christian.  As many of the readers warned, this is not a ‘born again’ book in an Evangelical sense but a Catholic story about one man’s return to faith.

I noticed that Tim Challies did not like it, and I can understand that. Tim, a Canadian pastor in a Reformed denomination, will have a different experience of God and His grace than will a passionate Hungarian who had to come to grips not only with his early memories of the aftermath of the Second World War but also becoming a US citizen and adapting to life in an environment where urban back streets featured prominently. Furthermore, there is no doctrine of grace in the Catholic Church the way there is in the Reformed denominations. Readers should not expect to find it in Eszterhas’s book.

So — a possible recommendation for Catholics and maybe for mainline Protestants. I’m not saying Eszterhas’s style is correct or justifiable when writing about conversion and Christianity, however many Catholics, especially those born after the Second World War, will be able to identify with or overlook these weaknesses.

I pray that God sends him every grace in his continuing sanctification.

The saddest times to read about death — for me, anyway — are at Christmas and Easter, especially at Easter, which has long been my favourite religious feast day.

On April 16, 2012, news emerged that a two-year old girl’s mother died in Australia around Easter. It appears there were only the two of them, and that the little mite survived on Easter eggs until a pastor gained entry to their home after a neighbour, a nun, became concerned. The mother seemed to have ongoing health problems and a nearby resident said:

She was a wonderful mother, no one had any problems from her, she loved her daughter with all her heart.

Let’s pray that her little girl is placed in an equally loving home and has a stable life.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, the Telegraph reported that an actor playing the role of Judas in a Passion play on Good Friday died of cerebral anorexia:

Tiago Klimeck, 27, had been in a coma since the accident on Good Friday earlier this month in Itarare. Klimeck was enacting the suicide of Judas during the performance. He was hanging for four minutes before fellow actors realised something was wrong, believing he was playing his role. When he was taken down, Klimeck was unconscious. Scans found that the incident had caused cerebral anoxia due to the complete lack of oxygen to the brain. His life support machine was switched off on Sunday. An autopsy was due to take place yesterday.

Police are examining the security apparatus that was meant to support Klimeck during the scene.

It is unclear if any charges will be filed.

The Passion of Christ is performed every year in Brazil across the country. The biggest show is in Pernambuco, where thousands of visitors watch more than 500 actors on nine separate stages.

Yahoo!UK news has more:

Reports suggest that the harness had been lent to the theatre company from a local fire department and Klimeck was not supervised because he had used the equipment before.

Klimeck was said to have got material from his clothes caught on the harness cord when he jumped from a ladder during the scene.

Janaina Carvalho, a member of the theatre group, explained: “I started talking to Tiago and asked him to help us to take the rope.

“When I realised he did not answer, I and other actors call for help.”

There was no information about Mr Klimeck’s religious beliefs, just that his funeral had now taken place.

Klimeck and his fellow actors had been part of a production of Passion of the Christ, a powerful script. During Mel Gibson’s filming several years ago, I read a few interviews where the cast, largely unbelievers except for the actor playing Jesus, often had in-depth discussions after dinner about Christ and faith — and that was after Mel had left the table. If I remember rightly, the actor who played Barabbas became a Christian afterward.

No one was left untouched during the filming. Some weird things also happened. The sound man — an agnostic — often had problems getting the audio effects right. Weird noises regularly interrupted his work. He said that at one point he became so frustrated that he shouted at the Devil to stop. He was surprised to find that his rebuke worked. He had no further problems.

More on Mel Gibson tomorrow.

Today’s post continues an examination of St John’s epistles.

Unfortunately, as relevant as his message is with regard to understanding our relationship to God through His Son Jesus Christ, the meaning of Christian love, identifying other Christians as well as false teachers — most of these New Testament verses are excluded from the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

As such, they are part of my Forbidden Bible Verses series, also essential to our understanding of the Bible.

Although the King James Version of this epistle is more beautiful to read, I have chosen the English Standard Version to reach the widest number of readers in my international audience. Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

2 John 1


 1 The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all who know the truth, 2because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever:

 3 Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love.

Walking in Truth and Love

 4 I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father. 5And now I ask you, dear lady— not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning— that we love one another. 6And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it. 7For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. 8Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. 9Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 11for whoever greets himtakes part in his wicked works.

Final Greetings

 12 Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face,so that our joy may be complete.

 13The children of your elect sister greet you.


This is the penultimate letter of John and is addressed to an ‘elect’ lady. Next week’s will feature the final letter, which is to Gaius.

The letters in 1 John are intended for the church in Ephesus and address the aforementioned subjects as follows (1 John 1 is part of the Lectionary readings):

1 John 2: obeying Christ’s commandment to love one another, loving Christ more than the world, knowing that one lives in truth through Him and rejecting antichrists

1 John 3: identifying other Christians by their love, loving each other openly, having assurance that we do indeed belong to Christ,

– 1 John 4: discerning antichrists, understanding Christ as propitiation for our sins and God’s perfect love for us

– 1 John 5: understanding the Holy Trinity and the confidence we should have that Jesus Christ responds to prayers of those who believe in Him

On to today’s epistle, which is one of two individual letters. Yesterday’s post discussed the role of women in the New Testament from Matthew Henry’s uplifting perspective. Henry concluded that, given the elevated position of women in Christ’s and the apostles’ ministries, it is no surprise that a woman

should be dignified also by an apostolical epistle.

Although we do not know who the lady is, it is probable that John wrote his letter in the context of her opening her house to lodge itinerant preachers, as St Peter exhorted the early Christians (1 Peter 4:9):

Use hospitality one to another without grudging.

The problem is that it is difficult to be known to offer hospitality and not run the risk of welcoming antichrists (false teachers as discussed above in 1 John). John’s church in Ephesus — after Paul’s martyrdom — fell prey temporarily to a group of false teachers who left as suddenly as they arrived.

Ephesus, as John MacArthur reminds us, was home to the immense temple to the goddess Diana.  Hence, John’s warning at the end 1 John 5 to his flock to avoid idols, thereby avoiding weakening their faith.

With this in mind, John feels it is urgent to caution this lady about welcoming false teachers (antichrists) into her home. He says in verse 12 that he intends to explain the situation further when he sees her in person. Therefore, we might consider this letter as akin to an email today — a brief message to convey a piece of information with warm regards.

In verse 1, John refers to himself as ‘elder’. John MacArthur points out that at this time — sometime between 90 and 95 AD — John is the last of Jesus’s apostles who is still alive. Paul was martyred in 67 AD.  This means that John, as well as being the ‘elder’, is also elderly as he writes this letter.

John holds this lady in such high esteem that he refers to her as ‘elect’ and includes her children, possibly as a means of encouraging them to continue in their mother’s godly footsteps. John uses the word ‘truth’ three times in the first two verses, by which he means Christian truth — the only truth which will be with and in us for eternity.

He elaborates on this thought more in verse 3, with a warm benediction including himself, the lady and her family.  He is careful to mention God the Father and God the Son and that this blessing is about their truth and love for their believers.

John compliments the lady — possibly a widow but, in any case, in charge of the household — on the deportment of ‘some’ of her children in their Christian journey (verse 4). They might be the eldest and are able to take a more active part in the local church or in the hospitality offered in the home.  Matthew Henry thinks that these children might be sons who are in the working world, possibly travelling for a family business.

Henry has this to say on the importance of raising their children in the faith from an early age (emphases mine):

See how good it is to be trained up to early religion! Though religion is not to be founded upon education, yet education may be and often is blessed, and is the way to fortify youth against irreligious infection. Hence too let young travellers learn to carry their religion along with them, and not either leave it at home or learn the ill customs of the countries where they come. It may be observed, also, that sometimes election runs in a direct line; here we have an elect lady, and her elect children; children may be beloved for their parents’ sake, but both by virtue of free grace. From the apostle’s joy herein we may observe that it is pleasant to see children treading in good parent’s steps; and those who see this may well congratulate their parents thereupon, and that both to excite their thankfulness to God for, and to enlarge their comfort in, so great a blessing. How happy a lady was this, who had brought forth so many children for heaven and for God! And how great a joy must it be to her ladyship to hear so good an account of them from so good a judge! And we may further see that it is joyful to good old ministers, and accordingly to other good old disciples, to see a hopeful rising generation, who may serve God and support religion in the world when they are dead and gone. We see here also the rule of true walking: the commandment of the Father. Then is our walk true, our converse right, when it is managed by the word of God.

In verses 5 and 6, John exhorts this good lady to continue obeying Christ’s commandment to love one another, echoing his public letter in 1 John.

Readers might wonder why John asks this godly woman to do so when he clearly acknowledges that she is already a good and faithful Christian. The various epistles remind believers of the importance of keeping the faith when facing temptation and false teachers. One of these is 2 Peter 1:5-12:

5For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

12Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have.

In verse 7, John comes to the purpose of his letter. False teachers are in the area, particularly antichrists who are denying that Jesus — 100% man and 100% divine — walked among us in human form. Heresy and error are easy traps in which to fall because they distort the truth. Therefore, a vulnerable listener will nod at the truthful parts then be persuaded through elaborate rhetoric towards accepting falsehood. They abound in the 21st century as they did in the 1st. The early Church was full of false prophets with ‘new’ revelations. Today’s Church is equally full of ‘new’ revelations, which this blog attempts to explore in as much depth as time allows (NPP being one of them).

Another example of false teaching is theonomy, as the Revd Gil Rugh, pastor of Indian Hills Community Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, explains:

If I talk to a drunk, I don’t tell him he ought to clean up his life and stop drinking. It would make his relationship with his wife better, it would make his relationship with his children better. It would give him a better job. No. My goal is not to sweep clean the house. Do you realize that before, he was a drunk on his way to hell, and now he is a non-drunk on his way to hell. He is harder to reach now because he’ll go around and give testimonials about how he cleaned up his life The church is becoming more like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They are telling people to clean it up. Stop doing these vile things. God is unhappy because of those vile things. Do you realize that if they stop doing those vile things they will be like the Pharisees who cleaned up the outside? We as Christians go around and say, “My, haven’t we done something? We stopped abortion. We did away with drinking. We got laws passed so you can only have sex within marriage. We have really done something.” We have turned our country into a country of Pharisees, twice the subjects of hell than when we began. You want to stand before the bema seat and tell God that’s what we did? There’s great danger in moral reformation. The true believer has no part of it. And this is where false teachers are infiltrating the church. They are great reformers. I could give you a list of some of the false teachers. What they do is they come in and they lead the church astray by saying, “Let’s reform people. Let’s reform society. Let’s make a difference. Your vote can count. We can clean up our country and turn it back to God.” But this will happen only by the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ and nothing else. When sinners are born again the drunkenness will be taken care of. When they are born again the abortion stance will be taken care of. When they are born again the immorality will be taken care of. Moral reformation brings great danger.

The epistles warn of false teachers in various early churches, for instance, 2 Peter 2:1-9, 2 Peter 3, and Revelation 2:1-7, 12-17, 18-29. There are more.

The following passage shows what happened to the church in Ephesus, to whom John addressed his epistles. Only a few years later, the apostle would receive this revelation from Christ (Revelation 2:1-7):

1“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
      These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 4Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. 6But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

This illustrates the importance of increasing one’s faith through prayer, allowing divine grace to flow through us to manifest loving fruits of faith and studying Scripture. We can always exhibit more love for others as well as deepen our relationship with Christ. If we consider our relationship with Christ in the way we would an earthly friendship, we find that if we do not keep in touch with our friends, is it any wonder that we stop thinking about them eventually? Out of sight, out of mind. Our earlier love and devotion to them disappear over time.

Incidentally, Ephesus no longer exists, because silt from the river flowing through the city built up to such an extent that it ruined the city and its harbour.

Back to our text. In verse 8, John exhorts the godly lady to remain spirtually vigilant in order to maintain her heavenly reward. ‘What we have worked for’ has been demonstrated above: the importance of loving Christ with all our hearts every day with the same fervour we had when we first heard the truth of His teachings.

In verse 9, John cautions against those who ‘go on ahead’, meaning adding or distorting His truth. In this case (verse 7), false teachers were proclaiming that Christ had no real human form. John MacArthur explains that this is a heresy known as docetism:

from the Greek verb dokeo ... Dokeo means to seem to appear…to seem to appear. And there was a philosophical idea that the logo Spirit, the divine Spirit didn’t really become a man, He just seemed to appear as a man. It’s sort of a phantom Christ, a sort of visionary Christ. It was really an illusion…an illusion. This was born out of ancient philosophical dualism. In philosophical dualism the viewpoint was that matter is evil and spirit is good. And the good spirit, the good logo Spirit, the divine Spirit could never become one with human flesh because it would then become evil. Since matter is evil and spirit is good.. So He simply appeared to be in the flesh, but could not take upon flesh. By the way, that dualism was a convenient form of Antinomianism. It was a convenient way to dispossess yourself of any responsibility for sin because if you believed that, you would say, “Well, my spirit is good, my body is bad, what am I going to do about my bad body? I can’t help it. Don’t hold me responsible. My spirit is good, my body is bad, all matter is bad, all that is flesh is bad. Nothing I can do about it.” And on the basis of that you could live any way you wanted without any culpability.

It should also be noted that the Nicolaitans, false Christians given to libertinism, also visited Ephesus, although Christ later gives credit to the Ephesians for rejecting their teaching (2 Revelation 6):

But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

In verse 9, John says that those who ‘go on ahead’ do not have the truth of Christ within them. They are false Christians and not to be believed. Only those who honour the truth of Christ’s teachings will enter the kingdom of Heaven.  This is what he explained in 1 John (see above) and why he elaborated on those themes.

John goes on to say something essential in verse 10: have nothing to do with false teachers. Certainly do not welcome them into your house — and do not even greet them! As soon as we begin to associate with these people, we open ourselves up to taking on board what they have to say. Like the Ephesians of 1 John, we become troubled and confused. We might start to rationalise Jesus’s truths and fall prey to distortions, e.g. docetism.

Therefore, we are not to be hospitable towards people of sects (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses) or even our own clergy who are guilty of false teaching, otherwise, we become just as sinful as they (verse 11):

for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.

Those are strong words indeed, and they show that we should be discerning with our love and hospitality. Exercise it towards good people and withdraw it from those working evil.

Recall what Jesus told His disciples (Matthew 10:16):

Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

In verse 12, John says that he hopes to see this honourable ‘elect’ lady soon in person, but, for now, a brief letter will have to suffice. He has conveyed his message but looks forward to the happiness of conversing with her.

In closing (verse 13), John adds that the lady’s children send their greetings. (Henry says the children are nieces; John MacArthur does not specify and thinks that the sister also sends greetings.)

Note that John also calls the lady’s sister ‘elect’.  Henry observes:

Grace was abundant towards this family; here are two elect sisters, and probably their elect children. How will they admire this grace in heaven! The apostle condescends to insert the nieces’ duty (as we should call it), or dutiful salutation, to their aunt. The duty of inferior relations is to be cherished. Doubtless the apostle was easy of access, and would admit all friendly and pious communication, and was ready to enhance the good lady’s joy in her nieces as well as in her children. May there by many such gracious ladies rejoicing in their gracious descendants and other relations! Amen.

Next week: 3 John 1

Hello, ladies, egalitarians and complementarians. This post is dedicated to you.

Tomorrow, I shall continue with a study of John’s epistles, beginning with 2 John 1. In reading Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary, I noted the empathetic way he introduced this letter, which was dedicated to a Christian lady.

Women and egalitarians will draw comfort from this introduction, and complementarians would do well to note its kindness and generosity to the fairer sex. It dates from the early 18th century (emphases mine):

Here we find a canonical epistle inscribed, principally, not only to a single person, but to one also of the softer sex. And why not to one of that sex? In gospel redemption, privilege, and dignity, there is neither male nor female; they are both one in Christ Jesus. Our Lord himself neglected his own repast, to commune with the woman of Samaria, in order to show her the fountain of life; and, when almost expiring upon the cross, he would with his dying lips bequeath his blessed mother to the care of his beloved disciple, and thereby instruct him to respect female disciples for the future. It was to one of the same sex that our Lord chose to appear first after his return from the grave, and to send by her the news of his resurrection to this as well as to the other apostles; and we find afterwards a zealous Priscilla so well acquitting herself in her Christian race, and particularly in some hazardous service towards the apostle Paul, that she is not only often mentioned before her husband, but to her as well as to him, not only the apostle himself, but also all the Gentile churches, were ready to return their thankful acknowledgments. No wonder then that a heroine in the Christian religion, honoured by divine providence, and distinguished by divine grace, should be dignified also by an apostolical epistle.

I pray that late 20th century complementarianism disappears soon. It has done grave damage to many good women who believe in the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ.

After the NPP series, here’s lighter fare.

My thanks to Llew of Lleweton’s Blog for calling my attention to another cracking post by the Revd Peter Mullen, a priest of the Church of England and former Rector of St Michael, Cornhill and St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in the City of London. He has written for many publications including the Wall Street Journal and has a regular column in the Telegraph.

In ‘A Fete worse than death’, Dr Mullen describes English village life, prompted by a Telegraph news story about a parish councillor who was suspended for threatening a man who criticised his wife’s handling of a tombola draw.

First, an excerpt from the news story:

The unsightly spat occurred at a parish meeting in the picture-postcard village of Long Melford, with its listed Tudor mansions and quiet country pubs, near Sudbury, Suffolk, in July last year.

Members of Long Melford Parish Council, first formed 118 years ago in 1894, gathered to discuss the upcoming annual street fair.

Cllr Michette’s wife, Carole, had been tasked with helping organise the event for the fourth year running.

But when Mr Roper used his address to take exception to an error over raffle and tombola prizes, Mr Michette, who has sat on the local authority for 30 years and runs Long Melford opticians alongside his wife, flew into a rage.

His conduct was so shocking that another member of the public at the meeting, Christopher Buckley, later complained to Babergh District Council. The incident was then referred to Babergh and Mid Suffolk Joint Standards Committee and a hearing was held in February following an investigation.

Earlier this year the sub-committee concluded that Mr Michette had failed to treat Mr Roper with respect and had brought the office of councillor and the parish council into disrepute.

Mullen has a few reminiscences to share from his time as a country parson in Yorkshire:

I love the story of the near punch-up at the parish meeting in the holy and venerable village of Long Melford. “Shut your mouth!” and “One more word from you and I will thump you now!” And all over a villager’s criticism of another villager’s handling of the tombola draw. Forget the turmoil in the Middle East – the real aggro goes on in the English countryside …

I ought to have gleaned some hint of what I was in for when I went for the appointment and my interview by the Parochial Church Council in the big house next to the common. I imagined I would be asked whether I was High Church or Low, did I prefer the old Prayer Book to the new Noddy version, or even did I believe in the Apostles’ Creed and subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles. Not a bit of it. They talked for an hour about money and how much those “swine” in the diocesan office were swindling the parish out of every year.

Then there was a long silence before a lady with a big hat and an eminent moustache said, “I have a question for you, Vicar: do you think whist drives are sinful?”

… “only the reason I ask is that our last Vicar preached against whist drives. Said it was gambling. He turned up at one and started a rumpus during the prize-giving at the end.”

She appealed to the assembled PCC for support and addressed the chairman, “You remember, Fred, it was Connie Hardcastle who’d won the bottle of sherry. Our last Vicar was against booze as well. Anyhow, he kept blathering on until he’d right got Connie’s goat. She just flung the bottle of sherry at him. Missed. And it smashed against the wall. Glass everywhere. And you can still see the stain on the wall.”

I tell you, recent events in Long Melford were tame compared with some of the rural aggro I’ve witnessed first hand up i’Yorkshire …

He has a few more anecdotes if you need a smile and a chuckle today.

For the past several days, I have been running a series on N T ‘Tom’ Wright‘s New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP).

NPP is error-ridden and works-based. Today’s post concludes with four more articles — from two pastors and a theologian.

Over the past week, I have received some feedback on these posts indicating that those who criticise NPP have not read the many marvellous books written about it. How dare people criticise 20th and 21st century revisionism?

Critics have the books, all of which point to semi-Pelagianism and a misunderstanding of St Paul. For those who wish to remain in their error — have at it, if you must, but please do not expect the rest of us to follow blindly.

The Revd Gary Gilley of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois, tells us in Part 1 of 2 in his series on NPP that this theology is revisionism borne of the 20th century. NPP denies legalism then cloaks itself in it. Furthermore, Gilley cautions us about the postmodernist thinking therein:

There are other developers and promoters of the NPP including James Dunn of the University of Durham, but it is important to note that all of the aforementioned scholars would be considered liberal in their theology and understanding of Scripture. Enter now N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and leading New Testament scholar (author of 43 books) who claims to be an evangelical and is accepted by many as such. It is Wright who has become the conduit through which the NPP teachings have entered the evangelical church. For this reason, as we examine the NPP, it is the writings of Wright with which we will interact, principally his book What Saint Paul Really Said.

NPP is about salvation which the Christian maintains through church membership. In Part 2 of his examination of NPP, he tells us that this is called covenental nomism (emphasis in the original):

One does not earn a place in the covenant through works (except the work of baptism). However to maintain one’s position in the covenant requires obedience to the laws of the covenant. One enters the covenant by faith but stays in by works.

Dr Wright has furthermore stretched St Paul’s epistles to include reconciliation with the Jewish people. I have explained my position on this previously and conclude, as has been the case with my spouse, in-laws and me, that we do so individually by the grace of God.

On this and the subject of works, Gilley says that the NPP contingent assert:

Paul is not really concerned about the individual’s standing before God. His concern is about the status of Gentiles who are now joining the Jews in the covenant community. Paul is laying down boundary markers for those in the community (the church); badges that tell who is “in,” not requirements for getting “in.” Since those who practiced Judaism were already in the covenant community, so say the NPP scholars, the only issue is how to integrate Gentiles into the already-established community.

So, we must therefore become Pharisaical through ‘works’ and obedience to the Law as they see it. Clearly, Jesus Himself told us that this was not the case. Please see my passages from John’s gospel for further reference (Christianity and Apologetics page near the bottom).

And there is the political activist-theonomist dimension as Gilley notes (as did Michael Horton). Emphases mine below:

I see many things wrong with this definition of the gospel; two are outstanding. First, it transfers the focus of God’s people from the proclamation of redemption to social enhancement of the planet. For, as Wright points out, His gospel is not merely the announcement that Jesus is Lord (something true before the cross, by the way) but the rallying point from which the church is to “bring the whole world under the lordship of Christ.” Our mandate under the NPP is not to rescue people “from the domain of darkness, and transfer them to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). Rather our mandate is to rescue the planet and ultimately to crown Christ as lord over all earthly systems and structures. God’s people are to set up the kingdom which Christ began. This is a clear “kingdom now” perspective found in postmillennialism. That is, we are in the kingdom now and our job is to advance the kingdom to the point where Christ can declare kingship over the earth and ultimately reign in person. For now this shakes out to be a social agenda.

This becomes even clearer when vital aspects of the true gospel are either minimized or eliminated altogether. Thus, my second concern is even more serious, for in elevating the social agenda the redemption agenda is devalued. Take the all-important doctrine of justification, for example. Conservative Christians have agreed that justification is defined as Christ forgiving and taking away our sin and giving us God’s righteousness (2 Cor 5:21). The NPP rejects this definition replacing it with Christ’s eschatological victory for the nation of Israel.

Yet, recall that Jesus said (John 18:36):

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

The gospel message has nothing to do with a vulgar (Isaiah 64:6) manmade let’s-help-Christ-save-Himself construct. It is to do with salvation, not politics, theonomy, interpersonal harmony or the environment, however else NPP proponents would like to paint it.

More significantly, Gilley posits that (emphasis in the original and mine in the second sentence):

one enters the covenant by faith plus works (baptism), is sustained in the covenant by involvement in the church, and is maintained in the covenant by obedience. You can understand why many see the NPP as merely a thinly disguised road to Rome.

Another article, by Dr Carl Trueman, Departmental Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, is called ‘A Man More Sinned Against than Sinning? The Portrait of Martin Luther in Contemporary New Testament Scholarship: Some Casual Observations of a Mere Historian’ and is published on Dr R Scott Clark’s Westminster Seminary California faculty page.

Trueman contends that N T Wright and the other NPP authors have not read St Augustine or Martin Luther properly:

For Protestants, the issue is particularly acute. Given the role of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith both in the theology of the Reformation, and as perhaps the defining feature of Protestantism over against post-Tridentine Catholicism, the kind of revision being proposed by the New Perspective involves a fundamental re-definition of what Protestantism, at least in its conservative, confessional form, is.


We should, after all, not lightly throw out at least 500, if not 1500, years of church teaching. We need to be acutely sensitive to the magnitude of the moves we make in this area and thus proceed with modesty, caution, and careful scholarship.

He goes into a useful historical précis (see subhead ‘Luther in the New Perspective: A Brief Historical Overview’). Trueman says that, although N T Wright is more prominent in NPP circles, James Dunn is the NPP proponent who has hit Luther the hardest. That said, neither Wright nor the others are off the hook in this regard.

Then, Trueman points out, we are faced with the stigma of ‘individualism’. What do NPP authors mean by that word? Trueman observes (emphases mine):

When, for example, does it begin? With the arrival of knives and forks rather than a communal eating pot? Perhaps the man who invented knives and forks was the first individualist. Or was it with the advent of the Cartesian principle of doubt? With the development of the genre of autobiography? Or with the development of copyright legislation or the notion of personal property, intellectual or otherwise? I have not time to discuss these in more detail; but I do want to make the point that the complexity of issues which even this brief litany of questions brings to the surface underlines the fact that we must think beyond cliches if we are to do justice to the nuances of intellectual history in general and the church’s theological tradition in particular

Given that the term has no obviously given meaning, what exactly does Dunn mean by Luther thinking of justification in distinctly individualistic terms? It would appear that what he sees Luther as doing is emphasising the vertical dimension of salvation between God and believer as taking such prominence within his soteriological scheme that the corporate aspects of salvation and Christianity are weakened and eventually eliminated (this process reaching its terminus in the existentialist reading of Luther found in the work of Rudolf Bultmann).  This development is seen as the logical outworking of Luther’s theology and not necessarily something which was explicit in Luther’s own work or even of which he was consciously aware.

Trueman readily acknowledges the horrors of the Holocaust, but traces those back to the Enlightenment, which was as important in Germany as it was in England, France and early America:

Nevertheless, even if we allow the ideas of particular individuals a significant role in the formation of a nations social, political, and cultural values (and that in itself is a philosophically contentious position with which I am profoundly unhappy in such a bald form), Luther’s Christianity is by no means the sole candidate for criticism as far as Germany’s recent history goes: the philosophy of Hegel and Bismarck’s policy of Realpolitik are also significant intellectual sources of modern Teutonic totalitarianism.

As far as works-based holiness movements and denominations are concerned, Trueman observes:

Now, we all know that Luther’s analysis of the Christian life, as found, for example, in his Commentary on Galatians, came to exert a profound influence on the popular piety of later conversionist evangelicalicalism, partly through its impact and appropriation by John Bunyan and John Wesley, whose writings and life stories were to have such an effect upon shaping eighteenth and nineteenth century popular piety; but we must beware of blaming the earlier Reformers for problems that develop in later tradition. The Reformers felt no tension between their emphasis on infant baptism and that upon justification by faith; and it is illegitimate for us to import such tension back into their writings or to impute the problems of later Protestant theology to questions which they allegedly left unanswered. One can hardly leave a question unanswered which was never asked in the first place.

Trueman concludes that NPP is great — for those who have not read the New Testament or its supporting texts:

It too must be beautiful, but only if you don’t know the primary texts …

It is on the basis of their consistent and careful application of these procedures that these scholars ask me to trust them when they tell me that the whole of Christian tradition is basically wrongheaded over salvation, that the Reformers were more guilty than most in the perversion of the gospel, and that I should trust them as the only people since Paul to have understood what the gospel is all about. Well, in those areas of their writings where I am competent to judge their application of historical procedure, I find them sadly deficient.

Finally, the Revd Charles E Hill, a pastor with Third Millennium Ministries (‘Third Mill’) published an article, ‘N T Wright on Justification’. He presents an exegesis of Paul’s epistles. In laymen’s terms, he concludes:

What does this redefinition do for Wright? It keeps justification (reckoned righteousness) at the point of “ecclesiology” [church membership] rather than “soteriology.” [salvation] Justification is for him the presentation of your card at Costco: Are you a member? Here’s my card. I pronounce you justified, come in. This happens every time you go to Costco.

But for Paul justification is not a test of a membership already possessed, a test which can be repeated each time your “righteousness” is called into question. It is the eschatological pronouncement of God, once and for all, that those who believe in Christ stand before God as fully forgiven, fully righteous, on the basis of Christ’s propitiation for them. This reckoned righteousness is not an abstract thing. Elsewhere Paul says that our righteousness is not our own, not based on law or works, but is the gift of God (e.g. Rom. 3.24; 4.4; 10.3-4; Phil. 3.9).

What difference does Wright’s redefinition of justification make? I think it risks minimizing the importance of sin and of the atoning significance of Christ’s death. I’m not saying he denies the atoning significance of Christ’s death. But when you minimize the central importance of sin, you necessarily call into question the centrality of Christ’s atoning death …

The whole coherency of justification as meeting the problem of the wrath of God against sin, and therefore as being absolutely grounded in the substitutionary atonement by Christ which diverts that wrath from us, is lost or obscured in the membership interpretation. These things may not yet be denied by Wright, but there is no intrinsic connection between them and justification, as I see it, in Wright’s view.

I hope this has helped many — whether from the left-wing or right-wing of Protestantism — to understand the error of New Perspectives on Paul. Whilst realising that NPP wishes to right 20th century wrongs, it is going about it in the wrong way — revisionism.

You might also like Dr Ligon Duncan’s forensic examination of the various NPP authors, their theology, why they are popular and more on the error of NPP.

End of series

Continuing a series on N T ‘Tom’ Wright‘s New Perspective(s) on Paul, today’s post features excerpts from an article by Dr Sinclair B Ferguson, a Presbyterian who argues concisely that ‘the old wine is best’ when it comes to the doctrine on justification.

Dr Ferguson is the Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. In 2010, he wrote an article for Ligonier Ministries’ Tabletalk entitled ‘What Does Justification Have to Do with the Gospel?’ Much of his article follows below, emphases mine.

First, a quote from N T Wright — a possible candidate to replace the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams:

I must stress again that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved.
—N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, pp. 132–33

It’s mindnumbing to see a historian attempt to undo over five centuries of Reformation theology. The Reformers were much closer to the original manuscripts than we are and had no political — only an ecclesiastical — ‘agenda’.  (Wright intends for Paul’s letters to prove political and ecumenical points as a spur for works-based action.) Ferguson notes that Wright takes this one step further into church membership — ‘in the covenant community’ — signifying one’s salvation. A cursory reading of the New Testament tells us that church membership does not signify salvation. People died from misuse of the Sacrament (1 Corinthians 5, 1 Corinthians 11) as well as deceiving the Church (Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5).

However, the first paragraph below gave me pause for thought. I have never heard of or read in a Protestant — or Catholic, for that matter — context a worry over being justified through a belief in justification by faith. Is Wright just twisting terminology or ideology here? One wonders.  Please note that Ferguson himself is an ex-Evangelical.  He points out Wright’s specious reasoning:

Is this perhaps the longed-for antidote to evangelical individualism and a cure for subjectivism? Clearly Bishop Wright and others believe so. Elsewhere, Dr. Wright confesses the great relief he felt in discovering that we are not justified by believing in justification by faith.

But this already suggests that the plausibility of this perspective is scarcely matched by the reality. These words seem to describe an escape from the theological immaturity of an earlier evangelicalism. But having been reared at the same time in that same evangelicalism, I seriously question that such teaching ever existed in any serious form. This should make us reconsider the apparent plausibility of what is being said here. At the end of the day, it may turn out to be a sleight of hand — for several reasons. What follows are three of them.

First, there is a false dichotomy suggested in the notion that the gospel is not justification by faith but the latter is “implied” by the gospel. But this “either-or” way of thinking expresses the logical fallacy tertium non datur (if not A, then necessarily B). Thus, the gospel is Christ OR it is justification by faith.

This is falsely to abstract justification from Christ, the benefit (the implication of what Jesus did) from the Benefactor (the person of Jesus who has accomplished His work). But as Paul notes, Christ Himself is made righteousness for us (1 Cor. 1:30). Justification cannot be abstracted from Christ as if it were a “thing” apart from or added to Him. Christ Himself is our justification. We cannot have justification without Christ! Nor can we have Christ without justification! Insofar as this is true, we cannot say that Christ, not justification by faith, is the gospel.

Second and perhaps more surprisingly, given N.T. Wright’s extensive commentary on Romans, Paul himself provides us with what he calls “my gospel” (Rom. 2:16). But this gospel is saving power (1:16–17) — thus “being saved” is part of the gospel. In addition it includes not only Romans 1–3 but Romans 4–16 as well. More pointedly, it includes Romans 12–16. In technical language it includes not only kerygma (the proclamation of Christ and His work) but also didache (the application of that work in and to the life of the believer and the community).

Earlier, Paul believed that the distortion and falsifying of the gospel taking place in the Galatian church involved the application of redemption. Justification by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone, is as much part of the gospel as Christ becoming a curse for us on the cross (Gal. 3:13).

Finally, unless we are familiar with the context of Wright’s words quoted above, we may not notice a further sleight of hand taking place.

In the statement “when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people,” “justification” itself is being radically redefined. Here it no longer means “counted righteous in God’s sight although a guilty sinner in oneself.” It means “being regarded as members of His people.” Justification no longer belongs to the definition of the gospel as such, to pardon and acceptance, but refers to membership in the covenant community.

But this faces insurmountable problems. It is an eccentric understanding of Paul’s Greek terms. Were “justification” the antithesis of “alienation,” the argument might be more plausible. But “justification” is the antithesis of “condemnation.” Its primary thrust has to do with transgression, guilt, and punishment — relatedness to God’s holiness expressed in legal norms, not primarily relationship to the community.

Membership, therefore, is an implication of justification; it is not what justification means. That is why the gospel confession that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3) must never be understood apart from the interpretation given it in 1 Corinthians 15:1–3 — that “Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures.” This Paul specifically calls the gospel. It deals first and foremost with our sin, pollution, and guilt as the reasons for exclusion from the presence of God. Yes, justification is relational language. But it is no less forensic language for that reason — since it deals with our relationship to the holy Lord and Lawgiver!

It is right to be concerned that the objectivity of the gospel should never be swallowed up by subjectivity, or the church community destroyed by individuality. But the understanding of the gospel and of justification in Luther and Calvin, in Heidelberg and Westminster, provides all the necessary safeguards. The old wine is best. It satisfies both the requirements of biblical teaching and the deepest hunger of the awakened human heart.

It would appear as if Wright has fallen prey to what he has previously expounded on as the 18th century Enlightenment embrace of the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism — in part, the separation of God from everyday life — in attempting to separate justification from Christ, placing it into what seems, by comparison, to be a mundane category of membership. This can lead only to semi-Pelagian attempts at self-salvation.

The epistles of Paul, John, Peter as well as Acts point to false teachings and grave sin on the part of early Church ‘members’. These ills still exist today.

Justification is not the equivalent of church membership.  Paul and the other apostles would affirm that today — from personal experience.  Read the New Testament and see for yourself.

Yesterday’s post introduced Dr J V Fesko’s objections to N T ‘Tom’ Wright‘s work on the New Perspectives on Paul (NPP).

As Dr Wright could be a candidate to succeed Dr Rowan Williams as the Archbishop of Canterbury, it seems apposite that we consider his theology, even if we Anglicans do not have a say in the matter.

In any event, NPP and Dr Wright are quite the rage right now, with many readers worldwide in Reformed and Evangelical congregations. I haven’t yet seen a mention of him in our parish newsletter but from some of the works-based semi-Pelagian calls to ‘do something’, ‘participate’ and ‘take action’, I shouldn’t wonder if they have been reading him and just aren’t saying anything. This is not unusual for the Church of England, by the way.

Dr J V Fesko, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, wrote an article on the NPP for Ligonier Ministries’ Tabletalk.  It is called ‘The New Perspective on Paul: Calvin and N T Wright’ and is an informative essay on NPP. N T Wright has gathered an ardent fan club over the years; if you think this that NPP is a worthwhile pursuit, I would strongly suggest that you read Fesko’s article first before buying one of Wright’s or another NPP proponent’s books.

Today’s set of excerpts is from the second half of Fesko’s well-researched and thorough essay on NPP.  These begin halfway through the section called ‘Specific exegetical observations’.

As previously noted, Wright and advocates of the new perspective argue that the phrase ‘the works of the Law’ has nothing to do with legalism.  Rather, this phrase refers to the Jewish cultural badges or boundary markers, such as circumcisionWe must ask whether Calvin has misunderstood this key phrase.  The answer to this question is, No.  How can we determine that Calvin has not misinterpreted this phrase?  The answer comes on two fronts.

First, ‘works of the law’ (e;rgwn no,mou, ergon nomou) is not the only phrase juxtaposed with the idea of salvation by grace.  For example, in Calvin’s analysis of Romans 9.11 he argues that God does not consider the merit of works because neither Jacob nor Esau had performed any works that God could weigh in the scales.  He argues that Paul “sets in opposition to works the purpose of God, which is contained in His own good pleasure alone.”  He adds that Jacob was chosen over Esau “before the brothers were born and had done either good or evil.”[53]  Now it is important that we note that Calvin does not import the Augustine-Pelagius debate here; rather, he simply echoes Paul who defines works as either ‘good or evil.’  This understanding is not the highly nuanced definition that is set forth by Wright.  Romans 9.11 is not the only place that Paul sets up the antithesis between works in general and the grace of God.

Commenting on Ephesians 2.8-9 Calvin writes that Paul “embraces the substance of his long argument in the Epistle to the Romans and to the Galatians, that righteousness comes to us from the mercy of God alone, is offered to us in Christ and by the Gospel, and is received by faith alone, without the merit of works.”  He goes on to write, in a telling analysis that virtually parallels the new perspective understanding of the term works,  that the Roman Catholic understanding of the term is defective …

The new perspective on Paul is not quite so new; advocates such as Wright are not the first exegetes who have tried to narrow the meaning of the phrase ‘the works of the law,’ or in this case the term ‘works,’ to something less than general actions of merit.[55]  Calvin rules out that the term works refers only to ceremonies, which would include circumcision.  Moreover, it is important that we see that Calvin is using the analogia Scripturae to arrive at his conclusionsHe argues that Ephesians 2.8-9 is a distillation of what Paul argues throughout Romans and Galatians.  Calvin has not, as is commonly charged by Wright, eisegeted the Augustine-Pelagius debate into Paul.  What is of interesting note, however, is that advocates of the new perspective, including Wright, would not agree with Calvin’s exegesis of this key passage.

Advocates of the new perspective would most likely disagree with Calvin’s conclusions, not because he has misinterpreted the passage, but because they reject the Pauline authorship of Ephesians.  Though Wright does not explicitly deny Pauline authorship of Ephesians, he makes no reference to Ephesians 2.8-9Dunn, for example, does not believe in the Pauline authorship of Ephesians.[56] 

For the sake of argument, let us assume that Paul did not write Ephesians.  Even so, a thorough examination and exposition of the doctrine of justification should exegete this passage.  To ignore this passage and Calvin’s exegesis of it, and then accuse the Reformed tradition of eisegesis is once again defective scholarship, to say the least. 

Now that we have surveyed these critical issues between Calvin and Wright, we may now summarize our results and draw some important conclusions.

Summary and Conclusions

In our comparison and contrast of the analyses of N. T. Wright and Calvin on justification we see great divergence between the two theologians.  The new perspective argues that Paul largely deals with matters of ecclesiology and sociology, how Jews and Gentiles can co-exist in the first-century church.  Justification is a declaration that God, who is faithful to His covenant promises, which is a display of His righteousness, makes at the consummation of the age to vindicate His people.  The Reformation, on the other hand, argues that Paul largely deals with matters of soteriology, which are intermeshed with ecclesiology and eschatology.  Consequently, justification is when God declares a person as righteous based upon the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ.  If anything, this essay has demonstrated that justification rotates on entirely different axes for Wright and Calvin

When we actually peer into the telescope of the new perspective we have found that it is not aimed at cosmos but instead a planetarium of their own making.  The case for the new perspective sounds quite ominous until we see that it lacks any reference to Reformation primary sources despite their repeated mantra of distortion, and that it is built upon an incomplete canon. 

So, far from a revolution, the new perspective is simply a small band of peaceful protestors burning effigies of Luther and Calvin.  This does not mean, however, that the new perspective on Paul is a harmless theological movement.  On the contrary, the new perspective is quite lethal to the church.  What makes this school of thought lethal? Is this not overstated rhetoric?  Quite simply stated, no, it is not an exaggeration.

What makes the new perspective lethal is that it is presented as a variant of evangelical theology.  Yet, the proponents of the new perspective reject the very evangelical understanding of justification that goes as far back as Augustine.  Not only do new perspective advocates reject the historic understanding of justification but they also reject the historic evangelical understanding of canon.[58]  Yet, Dunn’s commentary on Romans, for example, is included in the Word Biblical Commentary series that is supposedly “firmly committed to the authority of Scripture as divine revelation.” 

Rather than a firm commitment to divine revelation, the exegesis of the new perspective reflects the interpretation of mediocrity on many points.  Søren Kierkegaard once observed that the “biblical interpretation of mediocrity goes on interpreting and interpreting Christ’s words until it gets out of them its own spiritless meaning—and then, after having removed all difficulties, it is tranquilized, and appeals confidently to Christ’s word!”[59]  The same may be said of appeals to Paul.  Wright confidently appeals to Romans and Galatians to make his case, but he conveniently ignores Ephesians.  This, however, is not the most menacing threat.

What makes the new perspective most harmful to the church is its use of terminology.  Advocates of the new perspective use terms such as Scripture, sin, justification, works, faith, and gospel, but have given them entirely different meanings … 

It is this use of orthodox nomenclature that makes the new perspective seemingly harmless and has some within Reformed circles thinking that Wright is no foe of the Reformation.  For example, in a recent review of Wright’s book What Saint Paul Really Said, George Grant states that Wright “weighs the evidence and finds that only historic biblical orthodoxy has sufficiently answered the thorny questions of the apostle’s contribution to the faith…. Mr. Wright pores over the New Testament data with forensic precision to add new weight to a conservative theological interpretation.”[61]

Similarly, Douglas Wilson [leader of the ultra-conservative Federal Vision] writes that “while Wright’s emphasis on corporate justification is important and necessary, the way he stresses it is a cause for concern.  But in a taped lecture of his, I heard him explicitly say that he was not denying the Protestant doctrine of individual justification.  Given his overall approach, this is consistent.”[62]  Yet, one must ask, Does Wright mean justification in the sense of imputed righteousness or as eschatological definition?  If it is the former, then he is inconsistent; if it is the latter, then this is precisely the danger of which Machen speaks—orthodox nomenclature that veils liberalism.

It appears that it is the latter because Wilson calls Wright “an outstanding exegete,” who “does not shy away from showing how the text conflicts with ‘standard’ interpretations.”[63]  The trained theologian or New Testament scholar will readily identify this shift in nomenclature, but the person in the pew who reads Grant’s review or Wilson ’s general approbation may not.

Likewise, Peter Enns, [now former] professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary ( Philadelphia ) recently positively reviewed two volumes of sermons by Wright.  Enns writes, “I recommend these volumes without reservation to all who wish to know better the biblical Christ and bring the challenge of this Christ to those around them.”[64]  Yet, if Wright’s views on gospel, sin, justification, and faith stand behind his preaching, then we must wonder if Wright’s Jesus truly is “the biblical Christ.”

The advocates of the new perspective on Paul give us no reason to abandon the old perspective.  Their case lacks evidence from primary sources and has fundamental presuppositions that conflict with Scripture itself.  Those who drink at the fountain of the new perspective must drink with great discernment because hiding behind orthodox nomenclature lies liberalism, and the heart of liberalism is unbelief.  In the end, it looks like Qohelet [Ecclesiastes] was right after all—there is nothing new under the sun.

Tomorrow: Sinclair Ferguson on the errors of NPP

I only found out about New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP) a couple of years ago when I read about the controversy in some American Presbyterian denominations concerning an ultra-conservative splinter movement called Federal Vision.

I thought Federal Vision was strange. Now that I have been reading about NPP, it is equally unorthodox. It isn’t quite Catholic, it isn’t quite Arminian, it certainly isn’t Lutheran or Calvinist, but some odd theological confection which turns Paul’s epistles on their head and then spins them around. Reading about NPP is like going down a rabbit hole; you never know what you’ll find next. I am still  unsure how Federal Vision embraced NPP; maybe it is the call to political action (works!) which appeals to both conservatives and left-wing churchgoers.

The disturbing thing is that N T ‘Tom’ Wright could well be a candidate for the post of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Even more disturbing is that he is the leading champion of NPP, which has been around since the 1960s but has gained traction over the past decade or so.  By now, an increasing number of  Reformed and Evangelical pastors and laypeople have been reading and recommending N T Wright’s books on the subject.

Today’s refutation of NPP is by Dr J V Fesko, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. He wrote a lengthy essay entitled ‘The New Perspective on Paul: Calvin and N T Wright’. It’s an excellent study of how unorthodox NPP is. I would recommend that anyone thinking of reading NPP books read Fesko’s piece first.

What follows are excerpts and the principal ideas, which Fesko fully explores in his article, which he wrote for Ligonier Ministries’ Tabletalk.  Emphases mine throughout.

Despite the fact that Qohelet [Ecclesiastes] tells us that there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1.9), in recent years a school of Pauline interpreters have raised their banner declaring they have a new perspective on Paul.  What exactly is the nature of this new perspective?  One of the earliest proponents of the new perspective, E. P. Sanders, argues that the historic Protestant interpretation of Paul is incorrect.  Paul did not face opposition from pharisaical legalism; rather, the Judaism of Paul’s day was a religion of grace, not works ..

It is this description of first century Judaism that Sanders has called covenantal nomismIt is this pattern of salvation by grace, argues Sanders, that dominates the Judaism of Paul’s day—not rank legalism as is commonly argued.  A simple description of Sanders’ case is that Jews in Paul’s day entered the covenant by God’s grace but they maintained their position in covenant by their obedience.[2]  Sanders’ initial work in this area of Pauline scholarship, however, was only an opening volley.

Subsequent to the publication of Sanders’ work James D. G. Dunn carried the case for the new perspective several steps further.  While Sanders’ work focused upon the literature of Second Temple Judaism, Dunn’s own work focused on the writings of Paul himself—most notably his epistles to the Romans and Galatians.[3] …

The problem, then, in the churches of Rome and Galatia, is not one of soteriology but rather of ecclesiology and sociology.  The ‘works of the law,’ argues Dunn, have to do with maintaining Jewish identity and not legalism.  Paul’s mission in both epistles is to break down the cultural elitism and help the Jews understand that Gentiles are equal partners in God’s covenant.[5]  Though this is a brief thumb-nail sketch of the new perspective, this nonetheless gives us a rough framework out of which we can introduce the writings of one of the most prolific new perspective writers.

In recent years N. T. Wright, Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey, has written numerous works from the new perspectiveHis works have echoed the same charge as Sanders and Dunn, namely the Protestant reading of Paul has been influenced by alien theological issues … 

Now, this is not to say that Wright agrees with Sanders and Dunn on every point; the overall agreement on the major premises, however, is evident.

we will first survey N. T. Wright’s views on Paul’s doctrine of justification.  Second, we will then compare and contrast them with the views of John Calvin, one of the chief second-generation reformers.  By this comparison, we will be able to evaluate whether the claims of the new perspective, at least as they come from the pen of N. T. Wright, are valid.  Lastly, we will conclude with some general observations about the new perspective on Paul and its growing influence in the Reformed community.

N T Wright on Justification

The Righteousness of God

When we come to the new perspective from the pen of N. T. Wright, one does not find himself on familiar terrain.  This is due to the fact that Wright does not take anything for granted in his formulation of justification.  He writes that the “popular view of ‘justification by faith,’ though not entirely misleading, does not do justice to the richness and precision of Paul’s doctrine, and indeed distorts  it at various points.”[8]  We can begin the survey of Wright’s understanding of justification by an examination of his concept of the righteousness of God.  When one reads the phrase the ‘righteousness of God’ (dikaiosu,nh qeou/, dikaiosune theou) Wright argues that it must be read as a subjective or possessive genitive.[9]  In other words, the righteousness of God is not something that He imputes to the Christian believer but rather it is a quality that belongs to God …


… justification is not, according to Wright, about imputing the righteousness of God, or more specifically Jesus Christ, to the individual believer.  In fact, with allusions to the Reformed tradition, Wright essentially rejects the concept of imputed righteousness … 

Rather than imputation, justification is about the righteousness of God, or His covenant faithfulness, to vindicate and mark those people who belong to Him ...

Wright contends that “‘justification,’ as seen in [Romans] 3.24-26, means that those who believe in Jesus Christ are declared to be members of the true covenant family; which of course means that their sins are forgiven, since that was the purpose of the covenant.”  He goes on to conclude that “the gospel—not ‘justification by faith,’ but the message about Jesus—thus reveals the righteousness, that is, the covenant faithfulness, of God.”[16]  This, as one can see, is very different from the traditional Reformation reading of Paul on the subject of justification.  Wright is clear to point out his disapprobation for the traditional reading at various points, especially as justification relates to the works of the law and the debate between Roman Catholicism and the reformers.

The works of the law

Though not in every detail, Wright follows Dunn in his analysis regarding the meaning of the phrase, ‘the works of the law.’  Wright does not believe that Paul refers to crass legalism but instead to the cultural markers of the Jews—circumcision and Sabbath observance

Wright’s contention parallels Dunn’s belief that the works of the law were not the attempt of the Jewish people with whom Paul dealt to earn their salvation.  Once again, Wright’s analysis is replete with the allegation that Protestant exegetes have imported the Augustine-Pelagius debate into Paul’s writings.  Moreover, by contaminating Paul with these alien issues, argues Wright, both Protestants and Catholics have used the doctrine of justification as a weapon of polemics rather than ecumenism

Calvin on Justification

The righteousness of God

To see a good comparison between N. T. Wright and Calvin let us proceed to examine Calvin’s doctrine of justification along the same issues that we examined Wright’s understanding.[19]  This examination will facilitate the task of comparison and contrast between the two theologians … 

Now, it is important that we note not only what Calvin says about this important phrase but also the contrast with Wright’s own analysis.  Unlike Wright, who reads the ‘righteousness of God’ as a subjective or possessive genitive, i.e., a quality that belongs to God, Calvin reads it as either an objective or genitive of originIn other words, the righteousness of God is something that is given to man.  Calvin notes that the righteousness of God brings the remission of sins and the grace of regeneration.  This, just as with Wright, has important implications for Calvin’s understanding of justification.

When Calvin defines justification he writes that it is “the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men.  And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”[21]  We see in Calvin’s definition of justification the repeated theme of the remission of sins.  We also see that when Calvin explained that the righteousness of God brings the grace of regeneration that he specifies the means of obtaining that grace—namely, imputation.  The idea of imputation is a concept that Wright rejects … 

For Wright, God does make a forensic declaration in justification—namely, God eschatologically [concerning the end of the world, the Final Judgment] defines who belongs to His covenant people.  Wright says that this includes the forgiveness of sins, but he does not specify the way in which this is accomplished.  By contrast, Calvin argues that justification is a forensic declaration where God declares a sinner pure and righteous.  He bases his argument on 2 Corinthians 5.19-21 and the parallel that exists between the declaration of a guilty or innocent verdict in a court room.  The contrast between Calvin and Wright is evident.  This leaves one other issue to be explored.  Namely, what understanding does Calvin give to the phrase ‘the works of the law?’

The works of the law

In Calvin’s treatment of Romans 3.27-28 he excludes the possibility that man can in anyway earn or merit salvation.  In contrast to Wright, yes, Calvin does invoke a debate that was current in his day—the debate over condign and congruent merit.  This is, of course, a distinction that Calvin rejects.  He only briefly mentions this issue and then moves forward in his analysis … 

Now, the contrast between Wright and Calvin on this point is again evident.  Wright believes that the works of the law refer to those cultural boundary markers such as circumcision and Sabbath observance whereas Calvin believes that it is a general reference to human effort.  Now that we have set forth both Calvin and Wright on these points, while noting the contrasts between the two positions, we can analyze the differences and determine whether there is any weight to Wright’s claims regarding the Reformation reading of Paul.

Analysis of Wright’s Claims

Even to the untrained eye, one can notice that there is a great degree of divergence between Wright and Calvin on the doctrine of justification.  Moreover, the fact that Calvin does mention the debate with Catholicism over condign and congruent merit appears to lend some credence to Wright’s claim that the reformers, at least Calvin, imported foreign ideas into their exegesis of Paul.  Rather than exegete Paul with the first-century context in mind they had their own sixteenth-century issues by way of the Augustine-Pelagius debate informing their exegesis.  A careful analysis of Wright’s claims as well as delving more deeply into Calvin’s treatment of Paul, however, will reveal that Wright’s critique is incorrect.  Moreover, it will reveal the shortcomings of Wright’s own interpretation of Paul on justification.  We will begin the analysis of Wright’s claims with some general observations and then delve into the specifics of Calvin’s exegesis of Paul.

Deficiencies in Wright’s methodology

When we survey Wright’s critical statements of the Reformation interpretation of Paul there is a striking absence of any reference to primary sources.  For example, in his What Saint Paul Really Said, we find Wright approvingly cite Alister McGrath in his survey of the doctrine of justification …

Whether McGrath is correct is beside the point; he has based his statement upon primary source evidence, whereas Wright has not.  Wright does not cite any primary source material to demonstrate where the traditional exegesis of Paul is wrong or where the reformers have eisegeted the Augustine-Pelagius debate into the text.[25]  This is not uncommon among advocates of the new perspective.

In Dunn’s critique of Martin Luther, for example, he does not cite primary sources to substantiate the claim that Luther eisegeted his own conversion anxieties into his interpretation of Romans 7.  To substantiate this charge, Dunn cites Roland Bainton’s biography of Luther, not Luther’s writings directly.[26]  This, to say the least, is defective methodology.  To disagree with a position is certainly within the realm of responsible scholarship, but to critique apart from evidence is unacceptable.  Because Wright does not examine primary sources and their historical setting, his claims of distortion lack cogency; they are suspended in mid-air apart from any factual foundation.  Let us turn to the historical context of Calvin’s exegetical work on Romans, for example, so that we may see that he was not simply eisegeting Scripture.

When we survey the sixteenth-century milieu in which Calvin wrote his commentary on Romans, there are many factors to consider that mitigate Wright’s claims.  David Steinmetz notes that in the sixteenth century there were over seventy Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic, and Radical theologians who published commentaries on Romans.  In addition to this, there were partial or complete commentaries by Patristic authors from Origen to Ambrosiaster as well as a handful of medieval works.  While Calvin did not consult all of the available commentaries on Romans, his work certainly reflects interaction with this body of literature.[27] …

The advocates of the new perspective do not take into consideration that the reformers were familiar with the writings of the apocrypha—the writings of inter-testamental Judaism.  For example, Calvin interacted with the apocrypha in response to its use in support of various Roman Catholic doctrines

Specific exegetical observations

In our previous exposition of the views of Wright and Calvin, we were able to detect some differences between the two theologians.  We brought out three major areas of comparison to give us a framework in which to work: (1) the interpretation of the phrase ‘the righteousness of God;’ (2) the nature of justification; and (3) and the meaning of the phrase ‘the works of the law.’  Now, while we do not want to enter a full-fledged dissection and refutation of each issue, as others have done this elsewhere, we can make some observations about Calvin’s exegetical method in contrast to that of Wright.[34]

Regarding the issue of the phrase ‘the righteousness of God,’ we must ask whether Paul means to convey a moral quality that God possesses, i.e., Wright’s covenant faithfulness of God, or whether it is something that God imparts to His people, i.e. Calvin’s forensic righteousness.  This phrase, of course, is found in Romans 1.17 and is one of the most debated phrases in New Testament exegesis.[35]  While we can not enter into a detailed exegesis of this phrase we should note that Calvin echoes Paul where Wright is silentWright conveys that the ‘righteousness of God’ is exclusively a category that belongs to God.  Calvin, on the other hand, notes that it is not only a category that belongs to God but that it is also something that God communicates to the believer

… This brings us, however, to the second issue between Calvin and Wright, namely the nature of justification.

It is important that we note that Wright would agree that Romans 3.26 does state that God is both the just and the justifier.  Where Calvin and Wright, however, would disagree is on the nature of the justification in relation to the believer.  We have already seen that Wright believes that justification is God’s declaration that a person is part of His covenant people and that this is primarily tied in with the ultimate eschatological vindication of the people of God at the consummation of the age.  Calvin, on the other hand believes that justification is the actual imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer through faith. 

In the cursory exposition of the views of both theologians several factors emerge that demand our attention—namely the greater doctrinal issues that are connected with justification.  It was B. B. Warfield who observed that the doctrines of the Bible are part of an organic whole; yes, they can be discussed individually but ultimately they can not be divorced from one another.[37]  This is something that is a marked contrast between the positions of Wright and Calvin.

For example, let us compare their respective definitions of justification; first, Wright defines justification in the following manner: “‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God.  It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people.”[38]  Calvin, on the other hand, defines it as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men.  And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”[39]

The divergence between the two men is evident.  Wright’s definition speaks of identity—who belongs to the covenant—or in other words, Wright speaks from ecclesiology [pertaining to the Church].  Calvin, on the other hand, speaks about sin, the need for righteousness—or in other words, Calvin speaks from soteriology [salvation].  What makes the critical difference between the two is that Wright virtually by-passes all discussions that pertain to soteriology effectively divorcing it from other doctrinal considerationsCalvin, on the other hand, makes the connection between soteriology and ecclesiology knowing that the two are interconnected.  We can see this point by several examples from each writer.

For example, when it comes to the ministry of Christ, argues Wright, Jesus did not come to deal primarily with issues of soteriology.  Rather, Christ presents ecclesiological and eschatological issues—namely, how to bring about the final vindication of God’s covenant people.  Wright contends that Christ’s “first aim, therefore, was to summon Israel to ‘repent’—not so much of petty individual sins, but of the great national rebellion, against the creator, the covenant God.”[40]  According to Wright, first century Judaism offered three main options for bringing about the ultimate justification, or vindication and victory, of the people of God: (1) the separatism of the Qumran community, (2) political compromise like Herod’s with Roman, and (3) the militaristic approach of the zealots.[41]  These options were all specious interpretations of bringing about the promised kingdom of God’s covenant ..

Wright by-passes discussion of sin and soteriology and makes reference only to ecclesiology and eschatology.  Repentance simply constitutes abandonment of misinterpretation of the tradition as it relates to covenant and eschatology.  Absent are the concepts of personal morality, sin, and soteriology, which are inextricably linked with justification, ecclesiology, and eschatology.

When we turn to Calvin, on the other hand, we see a full-orbed and organic treatment of justification in contrast to Wright’s analysis.  For example, Calvin argues that justification is intermIt is important that we notice that Calvin’s treatment of justification rotates on an entirely different axis than that of Wright.  Notice how Calvin connects matters of soteriology, regeneration, faith, guilt, repentance, and sanctification, to justification.  Moreover, Calvin emphasizes the individual believer whereas Wright does not.  Does Calvin, however, over-emphasize the individual at the expense of the corporate body?eshed with a host of other doctrines.  He writes that “Christ justifies no one whom he does not at the same time sanctify.  These benefits are joined together by an everlasting and indissoluble bond, so that those whom he illumines by his wisdom, he redeems; those whom he redeems, he justifies; those whom he justifies, he sanctifies.”[44]

It is important that we notice that Calvin’s treatment of justification rotates on an entirely different axis than that of Wright.  Notice how Calvin connects matters of soteriology, regeneration, faith, guilt, repentance, and sanctification, to justification.  Moreover, Calvin emphasizes the individual believer whereas Wright does notDoes Calvin, however, over-emphasize the individual at the expense of the corporate body?

First, Calvin does not emphasize the individual at the expense of the corporate body in his doctrine of justification.  As previously stated, Calvin recognizes that doctrine as a whole is organic.  All one must do is see the connections Calvin makes, for example, with his definition of the invisible church as “all God’s elect,” which are those  who receive justification.[46] 

This idea can be further illustrated when we recall that far from the radically individualistic age in which we now live, Calvin lived in a time that was marked by corporate solidarity.  Corporate solidarity was maintained by creeds, confessions, and catechisms.  Calvin, for example, established the practice of requiring all the inhabitants of Geneva to subscribe to a common confession.  This was done to maintain the corporate unity of the city.[47] …

Second, is Calvin in error for emphasizing the concept of individual salvation?  Wright argues, for example, that Paul’s epistle to the Romans is not “a detached statement of how people get saved, how they enter a relationship with God as individuals, but as an exposition of the covenant purposes of the creator God.”[49]  Yet, Calvin simply echoes one of the major themes in Scripture—how a person has peace with God

We have to wonder at this point if Wright, and the advocates of the new perspective, are attributing a (post)modernist reading of Paul to the Reformation, which is highly anachronistic.[51]

With these issues addressed, this leads us to examine the third and final issue, namely the meaning of the phrase ‘the works of the Law.’

Tomorrow: J V Fesko concludes on NPP and presents its doctrinal dangers

This post picks up where we left off before Holy Week in an examination of St John’s epistles.

Unfortunately, most of John’s letters do not appear in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship. For that reason they are ideal for my continuing series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to our understanding of Scripture.

Today’s reading comes from the King James Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur (sermons from 2003).

1 John 5:14-21

14And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us:

 15And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.

 16If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.

 17All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.

 18We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.

 19And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.

 20And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.

 21Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.


1 John 5:12-13 are verses to remember, especially when we are faced with Christians who believe that we must earn our keep in Christ:

12He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.

13These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.

I am running a series of posts on N T Wright‘s New Perspectives on Paul (NPP). NPP denies the truth of what John has written above — as well as the truth of what Paul has written. As you will see next week, Wright and James Dunn — another NPP proponent — further deny that Paul wrote Ephesians. The NPP camp, who are very popular right now, say that Christians do not have assurance from the time of their regeneration (conversion). They have to work, work, work so that on the final day they will enter the kingdom of Heaven — having earned merit. No work, no entry — so they say. (They are not confusing Spirit-infused fruits of faith with works, either.) This is a most cruel and hard teaching.  It is false and goes against Scripture. It is for this reason that I encourage you to read the posts refuting NPP.  Each focusses on a different aspect of its error.

John’s gospel and epistles help disprove NPP.  The Bible in its entirety points to freedom in Christ, not semi-Pelagianism. This is another reason why it is important not only to read the Bible but to study established confessions of faith. Please avoid being taken in by false teachers. They left the apostle John’s church confused, as they no doubt spoke half-truths. This is why John repeats and expands on his points throughout 1 John. He wants to reinforce the truth of Jesus Christ.

Now on to today’s reading. Rereading verses 12 and 13, John tells us that we have life in Christ from the moment of our regeneration. When we believe in Christ, we have assurance of eternal life, therefore, we can have confidence in our faith, in Christ and in the promise of life eternal.  Furthermore, John encourages us to have every confidence that He hears our prayers (verse 14).

The phrase to remember in this verse is ‘according to his will’.  Any number of people will say that they lost their faith when they received no answer to their prayers. One could easily dismiss this as saying that they never had faith; perhaps this is true. However, unanswered prayers also pose a problem for believers. A cherished spouse or child dies. A marriage breaks down or doesn’t take place. As difficult as these are, somehow they are part of God’s plan, and we must ask for more of God’s grace in understanding heartbreaking loss and in strengthening us. Adversity is a lonely time. Everyone reading this post can no doubt think of their own life-changing losses, myself included.

However, on the positive side, if we pray, putting our requests and lives in our Lord’s hands, He will transform our lives in all ways according to His will. He will help us overcome the many adversities in our world.

John MacArthur raises an important point on the evangelical style of prayer (emphases mine):

To refer to His name is to refer to all that He is and all that He does. To say that I’m praying in Jesus name doesn’t mean at the end of my prayer I say, “In Jesus name, amen,” and that sort of makes everything qualify. That isn’t it. Praying in Jesus’ name is not a little statement you put at the end. If you do put it at the end and it’s fine to do that, I often do that, in fact most of the time do that, but for me that’s not some kind of little sort of guarantee statement that makes whatever I ask for sort of an obligation. But it’s rather a way of saying if this is consistent with who You are, if it is consistent with what You will to do.

‘According to his will’ are important words to remember. In verse 15, John adds that if we know that He hears our prayers, we can also know that He will answer them. Note the two mentions of ‘know’ in that verse. We can have full confidence. That said, He might not give us exactly what we ask for, but He will give us what is best for us in that circumstance. There are many things for which I prayed fervently and didn’t receive for many years, then, suddenly, great blessings came — for which I still give thanks.  I sometimes think that they might have come sooner had I been more spiritually ready for them!

Verse 16 appears a bit confusing. If you have read it casually and think that it has to do with not praying for certain things, you would be correct.  The use of the word ‘brother’ here refers to a fellow Christian, not someone who is outside of the faith.

Recall that earlier in 1 John 2, after false teachers and their followers left their church — in Ephesus — the apostle told his faithful:

19They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.

There are ‘brothers’ in our churches who are lost souls. Sometimes they leave, as in this case. However, they can also stay in church most of their lives. Most of our ‘brothers’, though, are believers who stumble into sin. We all sin, but some are more prone to temptation than others.

John tells us that we may pray for our fellow believers in this situation. We know them by their observance of Christ’s commandments, as he tells us in 1 John 2:4. Christ will still forgive their sins, even though all sins offend Him.

However, some sins lead to the second death — the death of the soul in eternity. When John says not to pray for ‘it’, he means that, if we know what the sin is, we should not pray that this sin be forgiven. That is how serious God takes this sin.

However, we can pray for that sinner’s repentence as we cannot know who is really lost and remains unforgiven. We also cannot be certain how God will consider that sin if the person eventually repents. Matthew Henry writes:

There is room left for divine wisdom or goodness, or even gospel severity, to determine how far the chastisement or the scourge shall proceed. And we cannot say but that sometimes it may (in terrorem-for warning to others) proceed even to death. Then, Secondly, There are sins which, by divine constitution, are unto death spiritual and evangelical, that is, are inconsistent with spiritual and evangelical life, with spiritual life in the soul and with an evangelical right to life above. Such are total impenitence and unbelief for the present. Final impenitence and unbelief are infallibly to death eternal, as also a blaspheming of the Spirit of God in the testimony that he has given to Christ and his gospel, and a total apostasy from the light and convictive evidence of the truth of the Christian religion. These are sins involving the guilt of everlasting death

We cannot pray that the sins of the impenitent and unbelieving should, while they are such, be forgiven them, or that any mercy of life or soul, that suppose the forgiveness of sin, should be granted to them, while they continue such. But we may pray for their repentance (supposing them but in the common case of the impenitent world), for their being enriched with faith in Christ, and thereupon for all other saving mercies.

So, we can pray that unbelievers and apostates repent. Should they die in that state, those sins would merit their eternal condemnation. John MacArthur also explains this situation in more detail.

John’s rather pointed verse 17 means that, although any sin could potentially condemn us to death, Christ will forgive His believers — those who are justified by grace through faith. Henry explains:

The apostle seems to argue that there is sin that is not unto death; thus, All unrighteousness is sin (v. 17); but, were all unrighteousness unto death (since we have all some unrighteousness towards God or man, or both, in omitting and neglecting something that is their due), then we were all peremptorily bound over to death, and, since it is not so (the Christian brethren, generally speaking, having right to life), there must be sin that is not to death. Though there is no venial sin (in the common acceptation), there is pardoned sin, sin that does not involve a plenary obligation to eternal death. If it were not so, there could be no justification nor continuance of the justified state. The gospel constitution or covenant abbreviates, abridges, or rescinds the guilt of sin.

In verse 18, John says that believers — ‘whosoever is born of God’ — does not sin habitually and will not sin seriously.  This is because God’s grace enables a believer to ‘keepeth himself’ — to guard against temptation. As such, he is no longer a slave to Satan, ‘that wicked one’.

He reinforces this in verse 19 by saying that believers ‘know’ they are God’s and no longer belong to the ‘world’, Satan’s fiefdom.

John MacArthur points out that the verb ‘know’ occurs 39 times in 1 John, and seven times in this chapter.  He wants believers to really know — as a certitude — these tenets of faith. How refreshing and what a beautiful contrast to the promoters of the New Perspectives on Paul who are after meritorious political activism and semi-Pelagian works! They tell you that you cannot be assured of justification until you die. The abject cruelty and falsehood of NPP floors me — as it should you.

What else may we know for certain? In verse 20, John writes with conviction that we can be sure that Christ came to us, taught us eternal truths and belong to God through Him. That verse is a knock-out, and I just want to applaud when I read the last sentence:

This is the true God, and eternal life.

There can be none other. What encouragement to us two millenia later as we deal with multifaith relativism every day.

And this verse 21 is another outstanding verse, among my favourites. Mark it:

Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.

We might scorn the Israelites of old worshipping the golden calf, but today’s world throws up its own more insidious idols: more money, a better house, fancy cars, attention-getting behaviour, food, gossip, envy, lust, ambition — even family, if we seek to micro-manage our loved ones.

That said, John had a reason for warning his Ephesian church about idols. MacArthur explains:

John’s ministry was associated with Ephesus. Ephesus was the center of idolatry, massive amounts of idolatry occurred there. The Temple of Artemis, Diana, 420 feet by 250 feet, hundreds of people lived off the temple trade, priests, eunuchs, temple wardens, prostitutes, etc., etc., etc. And you remember the gilt of the silversmiths who made the idols, book of Acts gives the story in chapter 19, you remember how rampant idolatry was in that ancient world and sometimes Christians could drift off into those kinds of things. So he ends by saying, “Little children, guard yourselves from idols. You’re not going to fall back into that because you’re being kept by the one who is born of God. But don’t tamper with that.”

We might be reminded of the Lord’s Prayer:

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Matthew Henry notes that in some translations, ‘dear children’ is used in place of ‘little children’. He closes his commentary with this reflection:

The God whom you have known is he who made you, who redeemed you by his Son, who has sent his gospel to you, who has pardoned your sins, begotten you unto himself by his Spirit, and given you eternal life. Cleave to him in faith, and love, and constant obedience, in opposition to all things that would alienate your mind and heart from God. To this living and true God be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

Next week: 2 John 1

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