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R C Sproull yankeerev_wordpress_comBy the time Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation by nailing the Ninety-five Theses on the church door of Wittenburg, he had already begun distributing small pamphlets — tracts — about the downfall of the Church.

He compared the corrupt Church of his day to Babylon. Not only were the official representatives of Christ’s Bride collecting money for indulgences as repentance for sin, they were also denying the sacred, inspired truth of Holy Scripture.

The Catholic Church will readily agree to that post-Vatican II. I was taught of the Church’s errors in RE (Religious Education) class in the 1970s. Yet, what appears to linger there is the synergistic notion that we must work for our salvation. God’s grace is insufficient. In fact, we must merit it.

Things are not so different in certain Protestant denominations, especially in some — not all — Evangelical and mainstream Non-Conformist (e.g. Wesleyan, Baptist) congregations.

A works-based salvation is, at best, semi-Pelagian. At worst, it is full-on Pelagianism, which is a heresy. Pelagianism denies Original Sin and says that man is basically good. Semi-Pelagianism acknowledges Original Sin but says that man must work for his conversion, his rebirth in Christ or his ultimate salvation. Both of these dangerous beliefs are devoid of Scriptural truth and divine grace, which God the Father gives us in our Christian walk.

The Reformed theologian Dr R C Sproul — a monergist — deplores the Church’s departure from monergism. Monergism, involving God as the author of our spiritual regeneration and ultimate salvation, espouses the doctrine of grace — completely unmerited on our part but mercifully granted by our Father in heaven nonetheless.

The Covenant Presbyterian Church, a member of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) in Bakersfield, California, has posted several helpful articles and essays for their congregation as well as for other Christians who might wonder if they are truly saved. Worrying about one’s personal salvation can cause many late nights, much soul-searching and years of anguish.

Sproul’s article which sheds light on monergism, synergism, grace, error and heresy is called ‘The Pelagian Captivity of the Church’. Excerpts follow with page references to the PDF.

Sproul wonders what would happen if Luther were to see the state of Protestantism today (p. 1):

Of course I can’t answer that question with any kind of definitive authority, but my guess is this: If Martin Luther lived today and picked up his pen to write, the book he would write in our time would be entitled The Pelagian Captivity of the Evangelical Church.

Luther, Sproul tells us, believed in the doctrine of grace as revealed in the Bible (emphases mine):

Luther saw the doctrine of justification as fueled by a deeper theological problem. He writes about this extensively in The Bondage Of the Will. When we look at the Reformation — sola Scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus, soli Deo Gloria, sola gratia Luther was convinced that the real issue of the Reformation was the issue of grace; and that underlying the doctrine of sola fide, justification by faith alone, was the prior commitment to sola gratia, the concept of justification by grace alone.

Luther was not alone. Calvin, Zwingli and other early Reformers agreed on

the helplessness of man in sin and the sovereignty of God in grace …

In other words, our faith in Christ is

the free gift of a sovereign God.

Pelagius was a British monk. He lived in the 5th century AD, as did his rival, St Augustine of Hippo (Egypt). Although these were dark and primitive times, Church councils covering Europe and North Africa were ongoing. Pelagius objected to Augustine’s belief in a sovereign God.

Pelagius maintained that, although Adam and Eve sinned, future generations were spared inheriting that sin. This viewpoint goes against Scripture and Christianity, both of which point to our inherent and ongoing depravity because we actually have a proclivity to sin, which we received from Adam and Eve. As St Augustine believed, this state (p. 2), leaves us in

a sinful, fallen condition.

As such, we are able to achieve nothing good or godly on our own. We must rely on God’s grace, the workings of the Holy Spirit and the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins.

Yet, Pelagius insisted that Adam and Eve’s sin was not passed down to us and that any grace we inherited ‘facilitates’ righteousness to us. Sproul said that Pelagius meant that whilst divine grace helps mankind, mankind doesn’t actually need it. In fact, he said that people could live perfect lives under their own willpower, with no divine grace necessary (p. 3).

The Church condemned Pelagianism as a heresy at the Council of Orange in the 5th century, later at the Council of Carthage and, once more, much later, in the 16th century at the Council of Trent (p. 3).

However, despite Church theologians declaring Pelagianism a heresy, the appeal of man’s ‘island of righteousness’ — perhaps ‘divine spark’ — refused to fade away. Hence the rise of semi-Pelagianism: we need God’s grace but we are also capable of accepting or rejecting it.

Sproul writes:

Ironically, the Church condemned semi-Pelagianism as vehemently as it had condemned original Pelagianism. Yet by the time you get to the sixteenth century and you read the Catholic understanding of what happens in salvation the Church basically repudiated what Augustine taught and what Aquinas taught as well. The Church concluded that there still remains this freedom that is intact in the human will and that man must cooperate with — and assent to — the prevenient grace that is offered to them by God.  If we exercise that will, if we exercise a cooperation with whatever powers we have left, we will be saved. And so in the sixteenth century the Church reembraced semi-Pelagianism.

Now to the present day. Many Evangelical — mostly independent, but sometimes associated — churches around the world feature a believer’s testimony and an altar call. The unconverted in the congregation can seemingly ‘choose’ to ‘accept’ Christ as Saviour and Lord. These are also features of Holiness churches of the Wesleyan tradition. Essentially, even if the preachers talk about sin, they say that we have the inner power to overcome it. Furthermore, those sitting in the congregation — a Barna survey says more than 70% — believe that man is basically good (p. 3).

Sproul says (p. 4):

To say we’re basically good is the Pelagian view. I would be willing to assume that in at least thirty percent of the people who are reading this issue, and probably more, if we really examine their thinking depth, we could find hearts that are beating Pelagianism. We’re overwhelmed with it. We’re surrounded by it. We’re immersed in it. We hear it every day. We hear it every day in the secular culture. And not only do we hear it every day in the secular culture, we hear it every day on Christian television and on Christian radio.

You have no doubt heard the sayings ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease’ and ‘An empty paper bag makes the loudest noise’. One firebrand evangelist in 19th century America lived up to both. His name was Charles Finney. Whether we like it or not, he changed the face of much of American Christianity forever.

Whereas the earliest Reformers held to the aforementioned Solas, Finney claimed we had enough power and ability to affect our salvation alone. We don’t need divine grace — or possibly even Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection — for salvation. Sproul delivers his verdict (p. 4):

if what the reformers were saying is that justification by faith alone is an essential truth of Christianity, who also argued that the substitutionary atonement is an essential truth of Christianity; if they’re correct in their assessment that those doctrines are essential truths of Christianity, the only conclusion we can come to is that Charles Finney was not a Christian. I read his writings — and I say, “I don’t see how any Christian person could write this.” And yet, he is in the Hall of Fame of Evangelical Christianity in America. He is the patron saint of twentieth-century Evangelicalism. And he is not semi-Pelagian; he is unvarnished in his Pelagianism.

Sproul anticipates that people will object to this assessment, saying that grace is necessary for sinful man’s regeneration and redemption. Then he posits — and this is important to consider (p. 4):

But it’s that little island of righteousness where man still has the ability, in and of himself, to turn, to change, to incline, to dispose, to embrace the offer of grace that reveals why historically semi-Pelagianism is not called semi-Augustinianism, but semi-Pelagianism. It never really escapes the core idea of the bondage of the soul, the captivity of the human heart to sin — that it’s not simply infected by a disease that may be fatal if left untreated, but it is mortal.

Sproul explores two semi-Pelagian stories often heard in certain churches. One concerns God throwing a drowning man a life preserver, making an exact hit to reach the man’s hands. Another is about the Almighty assisting a dying man in taking a curative medicine. In both instances, the two men are able to accept God’s help yet contribute their own ability to their rescues.

But, Sproul asks (p. 5), are these accurate and in line with conversion and salvation according to Scripture?

Now, if we’re going to use analogies, let’s be accurate. The man isn’t going under for the third time; he is stone cold dead at the bottom of the ocean. That’s where you once were when you were dead in sin and trespasses and walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air. And while you were dead hath God quickened you together with Christ. God dove to the bottom of the sea and took that drowned corpse and breathed into it the breath of his life and raised you from the dead. And it’s not that you were dying in a hospital bed of a certain illness, but rather, when you were born you were born D.O.A. That’s what the Bible says: that we are morally stillborn.

Sproul goes on to describe a conversation he had with a believer who objected to his theology of grace. Sproul asked him how he came to be a Christian when his friend did not. In the end, the man says:

OK! I’ll say it. I’m a Christian because I did the right thing, I made the right response, and my friend didn’t.

Astonished, Sproul concludes (p. 5):

What was this person trusting in for his salvation? Not in his works in general, but in the one work that he performed. And he was a Protestant, an evangelical. But his view of salvation was no different from the Roman view.

Today, we have theologians (e.g. N T Wright), clergy (even in older Protestant denominations) and laity claiming that we must play a part in our salvation via ‘good works’. Divine grace cannot truly help us, certainly not fully; we must play our part and do something.

This semi-Pelagianism, made popular in the 16th century by Jacob Arminius who sought to deny the doctrine of grace as a comfort for Christians — when it did precisely the opposite, causing them endless anxiety — is the prevailing theology in many churches. And, he says, this anxiety will not disappear until — and unless (p. 6):

we humble ourselves and understand that no man is an island and that no man has an island of righteousness, that we are utterly dependent upon the unmixed grace of God for our salvation

A little over two years ago, I explored some Church history in delving into the theologians who were brought up Calvinist but separated themselves from it.

One of these men was the Dutchman, Jacobus — James, in modern day parlance — Arminius (see here and here). His ‘free will’ theology — that a person can freely come to Christ of his own human will — is called Arminianism. A number of Protestant denominations — Methodism and Evangelical churches — espouse it. In error, so do Anglicans, because the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion no longer have their rightful place in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Arminius has provoked endless confusion in non-Calvinist denominations because he was never formally denounced. His ‘free-will’ Remonstrants in the Reformed Church in the Netherlands — and offshoots elsewhere in the world — have used this to their advantage since the late 16th century. Even today, those who have had Remonstrant professors at university consider them Calvinist, when they are nothing of the sort.

Arminius lived in difficult times, not unlike ours today (emphases mine below). As I said back in 2011:

In 1588 Arminius moved to Amsterdam and served as a Dutch Calvinist pastor.  A few years later, it was apparent to his congregation and other clergy that he was preaching ‘opinions’ about free will, which clearly contradicted Calvin and Beza’s teachings.  The city councillors of Amsterdam — European cities were still run as theocracies at the time — managed to calm everyone down enough to avoid open Protestant conflict.

The plague, running rampant through Europe at the time, brought an opportunity to ArminiusAs some of the professors at Leyden fell victim to this fatal pestilence, the University invited Arminius to teach theology.  His appointment was not approved without controversy among the faculty.  Their difference in religious views also coincided with political partisanship, to the extent that Arminius and his staunchly Calvinist rival Franciscus Gomarus were invited to the Hague to each deliver speeches before the Supreme Court in 1608.  (Politics and Protestant Christianity were closely bound in the Netherlands until the 20th century.)

By the time Arminius and Gomarus were invited back to the Hague the following year for a second conference, their respective viewpoints had begun to split Reformed clergy around the country. Arminius did not last the full duration of the second conference and returned to Leiden because of ill health. He died in October 1609.  However, his legacy of free will theology — as expressed in what he called Arminianism — lives on to the present day, most notably in Wesleyan and Evangelical churches, particularly in the United States.  Arminian followers of the 17th century were called Remonstrants, adhering to a radically revised view of Calvinism — which ended up being no Calvinism at all.

You might ask what the ‘problem’ is with ‘free will’. The difficulty is that it leads to the heresy of Pelagianism — salvation through good works and one’s own will — or semi-Pelagianism. Part of the difficulty with Christianity today is that no one knows the various heresies anymore; as such, they do not know how to avoid errors of faith, some of which are grave sins, which contradict the New Testament. See my Christianity / Apologetics page under ‘Heresy’ for more.

The problem with Arminianism is that, in the words of Dr Herman C Hanko, Professor Emeritus of the Protestant Reformed Seminary in Grandville, Michigan:

Ultimately the free offer also makes the perseverance of the saints a doubtful matter. It stands to reason that if man can either accept or reject the gospel offer, he can at one time accept it, at another time reject it, and yet again accept it. But because his salvation is dependent upon what he does, his salvation hangs by the thin thread of his own free will. Thus his final salvation is always in doubt. He can fall away from the faith, and he can, while once having accepted Christ, still spurn Him in the future. It is undoubtedly this general Arminian teaching that is the basis for revivals and recommitments to Christ through the invitation.

Read John 6 and the Epistles of St Paul — Romans, in particular — for scriptural backup.

Theological error causes much conflict, still alive in our doctrinally weakening churches today. Lutherans rightly take objection to Universal Objective Justification (UOJ), which, if I understand it correctly, says that everyone, in principle, is saved. The few orthodox Anglicans around grieve the lack of education on the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion — a combination of the original Lutheran and Calvinist theology based on the New Testament. True Calvinists, having condemned the original Arminianism, are now calling attention to its latest incarnation, Federal Vision, which attempts to combine Roman Catholicism and the Anglican Revd N T Wright’s New Perspectives on Paul (see my Christianity / Apologetics page for that series of errors) with classical education, therefore, legitimising this pernicious falsehood.

In short, if your mind is spinning now, what this boils down to is false teaching.

Dr R Scott Clark  of Westminster Seminary California (WSC) asks in his Heidelblog — in light of this Federal Vision encircling certain Reformed churches — whether a modern day Arminius should be invited to preach in a Reformed church. His answer is certainly not, but let us look at the historical background he gives to Arminius and the Reformed Church in the Netherlands of the late 16th and early 17th century.

This gives insight into the Remonstrants claim to be Calvinist, despite Arminius’s theological errors:

Despite the intense controversy that his views and teaching generated, views that fractured the church, that nearly ignited a civil war in the Netherlands, that split a university, and that ultimately led to the convocation of the greatest international synod in the history of the Reformed churches, the Synod of Dort (1618–19), Arminius remained and died a minister in good standing in the Reformed churches. Partly this was a fluke. Arminius died in 1609 and the Synod did not conclude for a decade later. At the time of his death there was great controversy but there was not unanimity as to what Arminius was actually teaching. This was intentional. Arminius was intentionally vague, even to the point of being deceptive. Despite the fact that he rejected significant aspects of established Reformed teaching, despite the fact the seemed bent on leading the Reformed churches away from the gospel and back to a form of medieval moralism and synergism, despite the fact the he called into question the teaching of the Reformed confessions, despite the fact that it was he, and not his opponents, who was elevated to Rector of the University of Leiden, and despite the fact that it was Gormarus (and not Arminius) who left the University, Arminius whined incessantly about the hardships he allegedly suffered at the hands of the evil orthodox.

To this day — and Dr Clark rightly cites Dr Roger Olson’s blog (yes, it’s in my blogroll, because he does cause one to think) — as being an example of an Arminian who objects to notional nasty Calvinists.

Yet, the Remonstrants of Arminius’s Dutch tradition carry on. They let the rest of the world think they are Calvinists — with great success, I might add (Lutherans have mistakenly come to believe that Calvinists are Universalists) — yet, they themselves decry the teachings of Calvin and Beza based on the New Testament. It’s a win-win for the Remonstrants.

Dr Clark says that, eventually, the learned representatives of the Dutch Reformed churches which met at Dort in the Netherlands to resolve the Arminian controversy concluded:

This Church has been attacked, first secretly and then publicly, by Jacobus Arminius and his followers (bearing the name of Remonstrants). They did this by means of various old and new errors. These flourishing churches, being persistently disturbed by offensive disputes and schisms, have been brought into such grave peril that they were in danger of being consumed by a dreadful fire of discord.

Furthermore:

They rejected the errors of the Remonstrants categorically and declared that the Remonstrants had brought “again out of hell the Pelagian error” (Rejection of Errors, 2.3).

In light of this, Clark rightly asks whether, in the name of unity, whether a Reformed church today should ask someone akin to Arminius (e.g. someone of the Federal Vision preaching N T Wright’s New Perspectives on Paul) to preach in their church:

In light of the judgment of the Synod of Dort, had you the opportunity, would you allow James Arminius into your pulpit? After all, he died in good standing with the Reformed churches. After all, he professed adherence to the Reformed confessions. Of course not! Why not? Because you know, despite Arminius’ protestations, that he was not actually a minister of the Word as understood and confessed by the Reformed churches. You know that he was disingenuous, that it’s not possible to reconcile what Arminius actually believed and taught with what the Word of God says.

If that is the case, then, what if you had the opportunity to allow a modern-day Arminius into your pulpit, would you do it? What if he was well-regarded by many as a social conservative and as a witty and articulate defender of the faith against a rising tide of neo-atheism? It does seem as if the foundations of the culture and civil society are collapsing and that the faith is under intense public assault.

No, never acquiesce to admitting or listening to an error-ridden clergyman — no matter how charming or relevant — preach in your church.

This is what Clark has to say about Pelagius and Arminius. This is why learning Church history is so essential:

The heart of the Roman Empire was sacked in 410. Their world was literally crumbling before their eyes. The British monk Pelagius was known for his strong adherence to Christian morality. He was also well-known for his denial of the doctrine of original sin, depravity, and what we today call the doctrines of grace. Should the churches of North Africa have overlooked his doctrinal errors and should they have invited him to speak to their congregations? As a matter of history, they did not. They prosecuted his errors in the courts of the church most vigorously and condemned his teaching repeatedly. Indeed, the entire catholic church (Ephesus, 431 etc) condemned his doctrine.

Arminius lived during a time a great social and cultural upheaval. The Reformed churches might well have said to themselves that the cultural and social issues they faced were too great to worry about doctrinal fine points. Indeed, there were powerful voices, some of whom protected Arminius from his critics in Amsterdam and in Leiden, who favored doctrinal latitudinarianism, who thought that Arminius had some good and useful things to say. We may be thankful, however, that the churches did not take this view.

Study the New Testament. Knowing the New Testament enlightens study of the Old Covenant made with Moses. We see that God was preparing Israel — via the Mosaic Laws — for the advent and birth of Christ Jesus. Christ came to fulfil that Law.

The Gospel and Epistle authors are careful at every stage and in every chapter to explain who Jesus is and what He taught.

There are no contradictions in the truth of Christ.

If you study novels, politics or film, please make time to put those aside for a while in order to absorb the New Testament this year. You’ll be glad you did. You’ll also be able to spot the errors in Arminianism and various heresies old and new.

In looking at preachers such as Norman Vincent Peale, Reverend Ike with their formulae for success and prosperity, one cannot forget Joel Osteen.

Americans live in an era where a vast majority of them have read at least one self-help book. For a while, we had two in our house, given to us by agnostic friends in the early 1970s who termed them ground-breaking and revolutionary: Psycho-Cybernetics and I’m OK, You’re OK. Some readers will call the former satanic, because it taught visualisation. However, although my parents were unimpressed by these books, insecure people or those who could be doing more with their potential can sometimes benefit by changing their way of thinking. It doesn’t necessarily need to come through ‘meditation’, just a self-check during the day. Ideally, some would say, this would come through faith, but the Bible is not a personal formula for success.

Speaking with a secular hat on for a second, I believe we are what we eat, read, watch and think. A constant diet of junk food is bad for the health. Reading pornography or nihilistic novels is sinful at worst, unhealthy at best. Watching most television may inhibit critical thought. A convicted criminal who thinks he will never amount to anything even if he wishes to turn over a new leaf has to learn to think in a new way. Instead of his imagining himself committing armed robbery, he has to train himself to imagine enjoying working for a living. An impatient person needs to think of himself as slowing down a potentially destructive reaction the next time someone or something irritates him. And so on. All that said, let me reiterate, self-help is a secular methodology with pragmatic instructions which may or may not work, not unlike a cookbook or a DIY manual. It has nothing to do with church and isn’t intended to. Seeing what happens in the workplace these days, a fair number of managers and employees would benefit from reading I’m OK, You’re OK, based on transactional analysis. Over the past ten years I have seen too many dysfunctional family relationships reproduce in an office setting which produces warped results for the company.

On to Joel Osteen now by way of his father John.  Joel’s detractors accuse  him of having grown up as a rich boy with no regard for hard times. I don’t know about that, however, John appeared to have grown up in humble circumstances during the Great Depression. It is unusual for reminiscences from parents and grandparents not to have some effect on younger generations. John’s obituary in Lubbock [Texas] Online reads in part:

Born Aug. 21, 1921, Osteen dropped out of high school in his hometown of Fort Worth. In his biography, he said he began seriously thinking about God after leaving a nightclub in 1939. Six weeks later, he was preaching in Paris, Texas.

That high school dropout — after his visit to a nightclub — went on to earn three degrees in theology. We may disagree on the confessionalism of the seminaries where he earned those degrees, however, he adhered to an Evangelistic background, became ordained in the Southern Baptist Convention (Arminian) and later embraced a more Charismatic Christianity. In 1959 (emphases mine):

John founded Lakewood Church in an abandoned feedstore in Houston on Mother’s Day …  It was a year after he dedicated his life to the service of God.  He had been married for four years to his second wife, Dodie, who joined him in his ministry.  His church turned no one away. It didn’t matter what race or belief you had: you were welcome.  This was unusual in the segregated, highly religious South.

Unfortunately, the Faith Builders article I cited is no longer there.

John said that his baptism in the Holy Ghost in 1958 changed his ministry:

He traveled extensively throughout the world, taking the message of God’s love, healing and power to people of all nations.

John Osteen founded Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, widely known as “The Oasis of Love in a Troubled World”, where his son Joel Osteen continues to minister to thousands weekly. He hosted the weekly “John Osteen” television program for 16 years, reaching millions in the U.S. and in many other countries with the Gospel. His numerous books, cassettes, and videotapes are widely distributed throughout the Body of Christ.

However, I found this quote of John’s interesting and wonder how the sentiment behind it might have affected Joel growing up:

Great it is to dream the dream, when you stand in youth by the starry stream. But a greater thing is to fight life through, and say at the end, the dream is true.

Joel published Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential in 2004. Note the use of ‘best’, a favourite word among prosperity and positive-thinking preachers. The sermon of Peale’s I featured is called ‘Be Your Best’. Reverend Ike’s is called ‘You Deserve the Best!’

This clip is of Joel exhorting his congregation to ‘Expect Good Things’:

I imagine that many broken people attend Osteen’s Lakewood Church for right and wrong reasons. Yes, they are going to feel better about themselves after negative experiences at work, in marriage and, no doubt, in toxic churches.  And, yes, what Osteen preaches is a type of moralistic therapeutic deism, popular in a self-help dependent society.  (See my Christianity / Apologetics page for more under the heading ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’.) Some of these people a) will never have entered a church or b) have been away too long.

There are serious problems with Joel Osteen’s ‘church’ and his preaching:

Osteen has no theological degree and an odd outlook on preaching. He dropped out of Oral Roberts University after two years. A few years ago, 60 Minutes (CBS) interviewed Osteen, already ‘The Most Influential Christian in America’ (2006). Dr R Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary California said of Osteen after the interview:

… go back and watch Byron Pitts’ questions. Pitts was very fair with Osteen, even generous. He gave Osteen opportunities to say, “I’m a minister. My job is to call sinners to Christ.” What did Osteen say? “I’m not a minister. I’m a life coach. My job is teach people how to have their best life now.”

Jesus had little patience for the “best life now” approach. Broad is the way of destruction. It is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. So much [for] Osteen’s self-described prosperity gospel.

In 2007, Osteen said in the same 60 Minutes interview:

I can get up here and try to impress you with Greek words and doctrine and there are people that need that, they want to study deeper,’ he recently said on the CBS program. ‘But I know what I’m called to do is sayI want to help you learn how to forgive today.”I want to help you to have the right thoughts today.” Just simple things.

In which case, he needs to step away from the pulpit now!

– Osteen has a false church — not unlike Peale’s and Ike’s. Of Osteen, Dr Clark says:

As to judging someone’s profession, as a Reformed confessionalist … I confess that there [are] three marks of a true church (congregation): the pure preaching of the gospel (as defined by the Reformed confessions), the pure administration of the sacraments, and the administration of church discipline. Osteen’s congregation lacks these marks. Ergo it is, as the Belgic says, a false church. Belgic also gives us marks of a true Christian. You can see all this here.

He adopts a Gnostic and semi-Pelagian outlook, devoid of justification by grace through faith. Dr Michael Horton of Westminster Seminary California has examined Osteen’s writing and preaching, coming up with these observations:

“You can be better,” Osteen invites. “The question is: ‘How? What must I do to become a better me?’ In my first book, Your Best Life Now, I presented seven steps to living at your full potential.” But with Becoming a Better You, he wants to go a little deeper. “I’m hoping to help you look inside yourself and discover the priceless seeds of greatness that God has placed within you. In this book, I will reveal to you seven keys that you can use to unlock those seeds of greatness, allowing them to burst forth in an abundantly blessed life.”

And:

God has breathed His life into you. He planned seeds of greatness in you. You have everything you need to fulfill your God-given destiny….It’s all in you. You are full of potential. But you have to do your part and start tapping into it…You have the seed of Almighty God on the inside of you…We have to believe that we have what it takes.

Horton remarks:

Just as Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, and other “faith teachers” speak of believers as “little gods” who share God’s nature, Osteen has an entire chapter devoted to “The Power of Your Bloodline.” “You have the DNA of Almighty God.”4 It’s “what’s in you” that is divine seed, he says.5 It is not that God has imputed Christ’s righteousness to us and adopted us as his children. We are not saved by an external and alien righteousness, but by an internal and essential righteousness that belongs to us simply by virtue of our being created in his image. Therefore, throughout the book Osteen can address all of his readers as semi-divine without any reference to faith in Christ.

There is more at the link. Horton cautions us about human achievement and our status before God:

I’m all for positive thinking-as long as we don’t call it the gospel. I come from a long line of Wild West pioneers and can identify with Osteen’s commendation of his parents as a major source of an optimistic outlook. The problem is when we blindly ignore the reality of our condition before God. Whatever good things there may be about me, none of them commend me before God’s righteous judgment.

The Word Faith movement, of which Osteen’s Lakewood Church is a part, presents a false notion of God and human existence. Because there is such an absence of Scripture, outside of what some call ‘the fortune cookie Bible’, Osteen’s preaching and his family’s testimony can give false hope to his followers, especially if they are ill. Chris Lehmann of Salon warned:

That confident assertion of — and indeed, identification with — the divine will is one of the calling cards of the Osteen faith. Amid all the spirited self-affirmations and folksy homilies that stud an Osteen sermon, it’s easy to miss the oddly deterministic invocations of divine prerogative summoned up by the preacher, who belongs to the “Word Faith” tradition of Pentecostal belief  …

The Word Faith image of the wonder-working, healing God is discomfiting to ponder, and not just because he might tempt desperately sick believers to go rogue beyond the dictates of medical science. The constant recitation of God’s transcendent goodness and the deference paid to his ironclad ability to lift believers magically out of suffering and woe both subtly downgrade the divine presence into a glorified lifestyle concierge. This God has no real way of accounting for the age-old paradoxes of theology, such as the tolerance of personal and historic evil, or the deeper ironies and unintended consequences of the believing life.

Osteen’s message is unbiblical, even though it sounds loving. The Revd Dr Brian Lee, pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, DC, wrote in 2012:

The biggest problem with Osteen’s message about God is that it is really a message about me. God is a potential, a force, a co-pilot, waiting to be tapped and deployed. I may have a net below me, but I am the one that has to take the first steps on the wire:

Taking steps of faith is imperative to fulfilling your destiny. When I make a move, God will make a move. When I stretch my faith, God will release more of his favor. When I think bigger, God will act bigger.

Osteen’s saying that God only moves if we make a move is hyper-Arminianism. In Osteen’s worldview, ultimately, that must mean that the believer lacks sufficient faith if a) he is dying of cancer or b) cannot keep up with his mortgage payments because of unemployment. We can only hope that his congregation don’t accuse each other of warrantless ‘backsliding’ over circumstances they cannot help.

Dr Lee has more:

Osteen’s message is not biblical. His promise that his audience will be taught the Bible—from a preacher who has admitted that teaching the Bible isn’t his strength—is fulfilled with a smattering of verses. These snippets are at best torn out of their context, at worst fabricated.

There’s this stretch: “God is saying to you what He said to Lot, ‘Hurry up and get there, so I can show you my favor in a greater way.’” In Genesis 19:22, the Angel does tell Lot “Get there quickly, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.” God waiting on Lot to step out in faith so he can bless him? Not exactly. It is God telling Lot to flee to Zoar, a city of safety, so he can rain down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah.

Osteen bolsters his bootstrap religion by quoting Jesus: “Roll away the stone, and I’ll raise Lazarus.” This, Osteen says, is a “principle,” “God expects us to do what we can, and He will do what we can’t. If you will do the natural, God will do the supernatural.”

One problem. Jesus does command them to roll away the stone, but no such quid pro quo is found in holy writ. This foundational principle is one of Osteen’s own making.

Taken as Christianity, Osteen’s false teachings — heresy, let’s be honest — can damage souls.

I won’t condemn anyone hurting who has sampled some of his sermons in an attempt to feel better on a psychological level. However, as far as Christian teaching is concerned, they would do well to frequent websites and churches which preach the Word of God and the true Gospel message.

Prosperity gospel preachers will be called to account one day. Pray that they discover the true Gospel.

Pray especially for their followers that their souls will be saved through that same eternal Truth through Word and Sacrament in a proper church.

Tomorrow: A checklist by which you can evaluate your church

CB064044Lenten practice and devotions still seem to light the torchpaper with some Protestants.

Occasionally, this blog receives questions or comments on the subject, although — thankfully — not many. I received a few a couple of years ago and two this year.

Elsewhere in the Christian ether, some Catholics are jettisoning the fast whilst some Protestants are adopting certain aspects of self-denial. Sometimes a discussion about Lent expands to one concerning denominational differences.

Below are jottings about Lent and denominational practice. This is not intended as a full exploration of the subject. Rather, what follows is a sampling of what I have read since Ash Wednesday this year. Emphases mine below.

Freedom in Christ

No Christian is under a biblical obligation to observe Lent, just as no Christian is under any scriptural diktat to abstain from meat, alcohol or tobacco. However, if any of these are causing problems in one’s spiritual or everyday life, then it is time to look at one’s ‘idols’.

Why Lenten fasts fail

I recently read a Catholic posting on a private site in which a young woman said she was determined to complete her Lenten fast in the best way possible. She and her closest friends viewed it as an endurance test, a marathon of sorts.

By the time Holy Week arrived, she was in the home straight, thrilled about the approach of Easter as a day of feasting. And feast she did. Unfortunately, her body, which had readjusted from deprivation, reacted and she became quite ill for the next day or two.

From that she concluded that fasting does not work.

Yet, the success of fasting — or other Lenten disciplines, for that matter — all depends on what one’s motivation is.  If the objective is simply quasi-secular self-denial, then one does not expressly need Lent in order to do that. One’s own willpower is not truly part of Lent; it requires God’s grace and much prayer.

The confusion with the usual Catholic approach to Lent is one of merit; I remember this from my own childhood and adolescence in that church. The general outlook was, ‘If you’re self-disciplined enough, you’ll do it.’ If you do not, you’re spiritually weak.

This merit-based approach promotes semi-Pelagianism and ignores that whatever we do is thanks to the grace of God. When Christ went into the desert for 40 days, He prayed to His Father — a lot.  Too many of us have separated prayer from our personal Lenten fast or other material sacrifice during these 40 days. Doing so leads only to failure or an empty accomplishment: ‘I fasted throughout Lent — I did this’.

In reality, it is God through Christ’s intercession, who works through us accomplishing every good deed. Our own ‘works’ are as filthy rags, which the prophet meant as ‘used menstrual cloths’ (Isaiah 64:6):

But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.  

I had never run across that verse until a few years ago before starting this blog, but at that time I hadn’t read the whole Bible. I suspect many Catholics don’t know the verse, either. That isn’t a criticism of them but of the Church in general. However, that is another topic. Let it also be said that millions of Catholics do observe Lent with a profound faith in and dependence on the Gospel of grace.

Lent as a step in sanctification

It is only by incorporating the Holy Trinity into our Lenten practice that we are able to truly become holier people.

Some will view this as legalism, which is why it is important to re-emphasise that it is up to the individual whether to observe Lent. This goes back to the freedom believers have in Christ.

Many of us try, with His grace, to build on Lenten disciplines so that they become part of our daily lives. Each year brings a new private step along that road, some of which are more successful than others. Some years I set out with one goal in mind and the Lord replaces mine with His.

However, we cannot grow closer to Him unless we pray for grace and call upon the Holy Spirit for better use of wisdom, discernment, fortitude and His many other gifts.

Church history and Lent

As I wrote three years ago, the Sundays before the period we now observe as Lent had a special significance. They signalled the period of fasting. This is because early Christians were already fasting four days out of seven, which must have been difficult with so much manual and menial work at that time.

Septuagesima Sunday — despite the Latin connotation of ‘seventieth’ — occurred 63 days before Easter.

Early Christians began observing Lent the day after Septuagesima Sunday.  This is because Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays were not days of fasting in the early ChurchSo, if the faithful wished to fast for 40 days before Easter, following the example of Jesus, they would have had to start the Monday after Septuagesima Sunday.  Today, only Sunday is a non-fast day, which is why Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

One week after Septuagesima Sunday was Sexagesima Sunday (today’s banal sounding Second Sunday before Lent). Early Christians by this time had been fasting seven days out of seven for one week. The Eastern Orthodox began their fasts on Sexagesima Sunday and some of their churches still call it Dominica Carnisprivii (No Meat Sunday, literally ‘Sunday Meat Deprived’).

Practical historical considerations and Carnival

Centuries ago, as Lent approached, flour from the previous year was near its expiry date, so to speak.  Similarly, eggs, milk and meat fat (e.g. lard) would also have to be eaten or discarded before the fast. No household threw out food.  Therefore, the European custom prior to Lent was to use up these foodstuffs.

It was also the Christian custom to go to Confession before Lent, to be ‘shriven’ (confessed) of one’s sins. Hence, the expression Shrove Tuesday. In England, this originated as an official practice in 1000 AD with Abbot Aelfric:

In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do [in the way of penance].

Shrove Tuesday was the last day to use up old flour and meat products before Ash Wednesday. It was also the last time to have a bit of merriment — taken too far in our day in revelry and syncretism — before a season of abstinence:

This day of last possible opportunity had different names. For French-speaking countries, it was Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras. Germans had the same name, as fetter Dienstag. Depending on where you lived, that pre-Lent time ranged far beyond the immediate Tuesday, and sometimes extended for weeks beforehand.

Then as now, Mardi Gras and Shrovetide were times for partying, merrymaking, sports, and carnival, before the season of renunciation and fasting began in earnest.

Opinion is still divided as to whether Carnival evolved from pagan practices which were widespread in many cultures.

In any event, the word derives from the Latin carne vale, or ‘farewell, meat’.  In England, the word valete is still used occasionally in formal academic announcements (parodied in the satirical magazine Private Eye); valete is the plural of vale and is used when bidding farewell to more than one person or thing.

Ramadan emerged from Lent

Many people think that Ramadan is its own tradition. Yet, it comes from Lent. Consider that Islam began six centuries after Christianity. By that time, Lent was well established in Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

A post at Paleos describes what the earliest Muslims would have seen and borrowed from their Christian contemporaries:

To see just what Lent meant in earlier times – between about 500 and 1600 – we can also look at some ancient churches around the world, like in Christian Ethiopia: “This fast follows the old law, for they do not eat at midday, and when the sun is setting they go to church and confess and communicate and then go to supper.” Even when allowed to eat, “they eat nothing that has suffered death, nor milk, nor cheese, nor eggs, nor butter, nor honey, nor drink wine. Thus during the fast days they eat only bread of millet, wheat and pulse, all mixed together, spinach and herbs cooked with oil.” A Western observer noted that “The severity of their fasts is equal to that of the primitive church. In Lent they never eat till after sunset.” They kept that up for forty tough days.

In medieval times, European Christians also behaved rather like that. In fact, some accounts suggest that, especially in Holy Week, Christians were expected to get by on two or three meals in the entire week, never mind in any given day.

Unlike Lent, Ramadan is mandatory — even on the part of Christians who happen to either work with Muslims in Islamic countries or — as has happened in the United States — attend state school with Muslims.

Lent a source of Protestant contention

Dr R Scott Clark of Heidelblog recently hosted a lively comments section between Reformed and Lutheran churchmen following his post ‘On Good Intentions, Spiritual Disciplines and Christian Freedom’.

Clark begins with an episode in Zwingli’s Zurich during Lent in 1522. Zwingli said that the New Testament gave the local populace the freedom to observe Lent — or not:

In a word, if you will fast, do so; if you do not wish to eat meat, eat it not; but leave Christians a free choice in the matter.

Clark’s concern is a recent Evangelical interest in Lent. He rightly says that, as they have no Church history of their own, they tend to latch on to traditions without fully knowing the reasons behind them. He adds that this interest in Lent is now extending to Reformed church members and clergy, which stores up challenges for the future:

When those who identify with aspects of Reformed theology however, borrow “spiritual disciplines” that the Reformed churches considered and rejected they are unintentionally creating the pre-conditions for greater problems.

He explains the perspective of the Reformed (Calvinist) churches:

The history of the church tells us that the road to spiritual bondage is paved with good intentions. We don’t need a church calendar beyond the Christian sabbath. We’re called daily to die to self and live to Christ. We don’t know when the Lord Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary but we do know that he was. We know he was crucified, dead, buried, raised, and ascended but we have no example of special services to remember those events in the apostolic church. The Mosaic church had an extensive church calendar (“new moons and sabbaths”) but that was fulfilled by Christ and has been abrogated. The creational sabbath has been transformed by the inauguration of the new creation in the resurrection and thus we see the apostolic church gathering for worship on the Lord’s Day or the first day of the week. We don’t have any food laws because the dietary restrictions have all been fulfilled in Christ. We may not call unclean what God has called clean. The dividing wall has been torn down. In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male, female, slave, or free. The 613 commandments are done. The moral law stands. The gospel stands.

The Reformed reformation of Christian worship was not the act of a collective kill-joy. It was an act of purification and a re-assertion of Christian liberty. That’s why the Reformed churches distinguished between elements of worship (Word and prayer) and circumstances (e.g., time, place, and language). The Word (read, preached, and visible in the sacraments) is God’s Word and prayer (said and sung using his Word) is our divinely authorized response. The elements are inviolable. The circumstances are mutable because they are morally indifferent. We have no moral stake in the time of the services but we have everything at stake in whether worship is conducted according to the express revealed will of God.

A few Lutherans commented. Steve Martin (not the comedian), wrote:

Lutherans don’t have to observe Lent, or use the Christian calendar, or do a lot of other things. But we do because we find them helpful.

And:

When we use Lent, or vestments, or candles, or stained glass windows, etc., we don’t make them objects of worship. We use them to help keep us anchored in Him…and tied to the great cloud of witnesses that have worshipped that way before us.

Nate Ostby:

Any time I read “that’s what the Reformation was about” I get a little nervous, and suspect I’ve just been fed an ideology of some kind. I disagree that we’re left searching for some Aristotelian middle between revivalism and ritualism. Since our mass settings predate revivalism and all…

Nicholas on the Reformed practice of ‘Psalms only’ and no musical instruments in church (Exodus 20:4-6, Deuteronomy 12:32, Matthew 15):

There is no basis in Scripture or history for the so-called “regulative principle.” Why don’t we ask those living in Calvin’s Geneva or the Massachusetts Bay Colony how much “Christian freedom” was allotted to them. Please don’t try to hijack the Reformation.

Thank God I’m a Lutheran.

Dr Clark makes it clear that his concern is more for keeping to what Reformed (Calvinist) churches believe as taken from Scripture.

He and all his readers are to be commended for the most civil and courteous exchange on denominational differences that I’ve ever read.

However, it still goes to show that Lent is a lightning rod for Christians, whatever church they attend.

Before I started blogging I had arrived at the perspective that all faiths were equal.

Note the ‘before’ in the sentence, which implies that there is an ‘after’: this blog and my own journey in Christ which — through His grace — I undertook and continue.  What I’ve learned along the way has come through grace, personal reading and prayer — not sermons from the pulpit and church involvement.

The next few sentences describe where I was. I knew very little about what the actually Bible said. I ‘knew’ (wrongly) that grace was a state one slipped out of relatively quickly after receiving Communion. I didn’t understand grace and I’d never heard of sanctification. I thought I was saved but wasn’t sure because I probably wasn’t ‘doing’ enough. Anyway, I figured that all faiths are works-based and so was mine. The difference was Jesus Christ, but it was clear that I didn’t really understand the full implications of His life, death and resurrection. Church was about keeping the congregation happy, along with a few Scripture readings that punctuated the service. Christianity was a works-based, achieving faith — just different to Judaism or Islam. Which of these groups would do best in achieving a good life well lived?  Because I thought in my ignorance that these faiths are all about works, coupled with not knowing the Bible, I put Christianity on a par with other world faiths. In that respect, I am not alone.

What I needed — and received through God’s grace — was some way of making Christianity come alive. Plus, I had a lot of questions I couldn’t answer. Somehow, in response, I happened upon Reformed websites and books which did just that. My apologies to other denominations (including my own Anglican Communion), but none have opened up Scripture to me as Reformed pastors and elders have.  For their wisdom and God’s guidance in this area, I am grateful. I’ve since read the Bible once and am now going back to studying it more in depth. I’ve barely started this journey and sincerely apologise for the imperfect and frequent use of the first-person pronoun thus far.

It is His grace which enables and directs our paths, but how many Christians actually understand what that really means?  Undoubtedly, there are millions the world over who are no doubt where I was.

What follows is Mockingbird’s Episcopalian view of semi-Pelagian Evangelicalism. (Yet, the Episcopal Church is full of the same, only from a socio-political works perspective.) Some will like Mockingbird’s ministry and site, although, unfortunately, there is no Bible in it whatsoever.

That said, their post — ‘Reflections on a Midwestern Church’ — will no doubt ring true for many readers. Excerpts follow, emphases mine:

It meets in a old, charming church building, not an office park or a bar or a towering arena in the suburbs. Red bricks overshadowing gothic archways suggest a Methodist or Baptist past. From the lunch hall opposite the sanctuary one can almost smell the aroma of a thousand pots of coffee brewed and numerous potluck dishes served through the decades …

Liturgically, there are no surprises here. Two worship songs with an acoustic drum band. An offering. Long announcements. Prayer. Another worship song out of the unwritten youth group hymnal. An air of lightness fills the sanctuary. Smiles and good humor abound …

There is no fire and brimstone here. No politics, no cultural reactionism, and, thankfully, no yawn-inducing victimhood. The people are courteous and thoughtful, refreshingly unconcerned with my line of work or the clothes I wear or the people I know …

Discipleship Is Not for the Timid

An usher hands me a paper bulletin, which outlines the elders’ vision for the church. They envision this church composed of “two communities.” Of one community this church “makes not a single demand.” These people are the despondent, the hurting, the outcasts of the world and from other churches, the dazed and confused, and the angry. Members of this community need only come to church and receive comfort.

Of another community the church “demands all.” This is the “community of disciples.” Each disciple makes “an intentional commitment to serve God and others.” Discipleship is not for the timid, the lighthearted, the fickle, or the capricious,” the bulletin explains.

I doubt the authors considered the syllogism this manifesto implies. It sounds as if a disciple cannot be despondent, hurting, outcast, dazed, confused, or angry. That a disciple cannot come to church casually. Instead, the disciple comes clothed in the antonyms of the non-disciple: fearless, grave, loyal, an insider, pacific. Church, it would appear, does not exist to comfort the disciple. The disciple exists to serve the church, exclusively.

Jake, the church’s young pastor, steps up to the stage. Jake is lively and passionate but not garish. He is effortless in his energy and his love for the Bible, along with his ability to look in a person’s eyes and convince the person of his worth …

Today’s sermon is part of a series detailing the church’s “Bedrock Principles.” This morning’s bedrock principle is “The Next Step”—that is, the next step in discipleship.  Discipleship is concerned, Jake explains, with “the steps each of us need to take to be more like Jesus” …

The disciple is “not perfect,” Jake explains, but he keeps his eyes open to his heart, always seeking out a better knowledge of God, which comes principally through consistent study of the Bible …

what God wants is discipleship, for you to be more like Jesus.  It’s simple but tough …

In its essentials, Jake’s sermon reminds me of what I heard every Sunday growing up in the Shangri-La of Evangelicalism. Absent from Jake’s address is the proposition, proceeding from a certain anthropological conviction, that a disciple remains in part—in large part—a person whose desire lies in indulging himself. I suspect Jake believes that the disciple’s self-indulgent tendency wanes after he becomes a Christian. He could marshal biblical support for refusing this conviction (“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ . . .”). Once “saved,” the pastor assumes, a disciple is no longer powerless against crucifying Jesus with his sin; he is empowered to follow his Lord closely.

“Seek.” “Act.” “Read.” “Pray.” “Join.” “Get in the habit.” “Follow.” Emphasis indicates ideology. Repetition makes explicit the implicit. The repeated structure of Jake’s sentences—in which the disciple is the subject, and action verbs are profuse—reflects an ideological judgment about the post-conversion individual, a conclusion based on his own empirical observation. Jake’s heavy emphasis on obedience is the natural outgrowth—in fact, the only morally responsible outgrowth—of a theology that dismisses the disciple’s continuing addiction to his own indulgence …

We should not call Jake’s theology—with its faith in words, rationality, and the disciple’s will—something that it is not. It may be sincere, and it may be well-intentioned. It may even be coming, by and large, from a place of love. But it is a kind of Christian ethics. It is graceless sanctification. It certainly has no root in the Reformation. It is a prehistoric pattern of thought impliedly formalized into a new theology—described as Protestant, but in fact neither Protestant nor Catholic. Its repeated emphasis on the decision to obey provides far more insight than its doctrinal statements or its organizational manifestoes. Justification by faith alone and sanctification by works alone is what this sort of Evangelicalism proclaims.

The chain linking Evangelicalism as an association of churches is the elevation of self-will. And a chain it is. In this particular strain of its theology, Evangelicalism shares an activating conviction about the capability of the will with Wayne Dyer, Mohammed, Emerson, Rousseau, and others. It stacks Bible verses on this conviction, setting it apart from the foregoing and lending it unassailable credibility …

The Inquisitor

Poor Jake! Like me, Jake is hypnotized by the inquisitor inside, who convinces us that we are capable of sustained obedienceThe inquisitor carries an endless “To Do” list for Jake and me. And as much as he insists that we may follow him unconditionally, he will tell Jake and me to try harder, to keep on keeping on, to check off each task from the list. The inquisitor never makes a move in my direction; he only drags me along reluctantly. I must make myself fit to approach him, but try as I might, he’s always just out of reach. The inquisitor wears sandals and an old Arab robe. He has long hair and a beard, and Evangelicals frequently refer to him as “Jesus.”

graceless sanctification … exacts a particularly severe cost from the disciple programmed in his fallen state to treat approval like heroin—the anxious, the child of the alcoholic mother or demanding father, the adult who subliminally associates his well-being with his moral compliance or practical industry …

The Evangelical account of discipleship weighs on the anxious disciple … because it borrows the logic governing the rest of this merciless world: for the businessman, a promotion is success; for the child, obedience is success; for the socialite, high demand; for the sexual animal, the bigger number of partners; for all, the more and the greater and the higher. And for the religious, the more steps he takes in following Jesus. But … seeing human nature for what it is, and the anxious disciple, seeing himself for what he is, expect that striving to end in failure

But even if a member of the discipleship community is not decimated by the Evangelical ethic, he suffers a loss. This disciple fails to experience the relief of learning that God has known all along how ethically bankrupt the disciple is. He fails to experience the exhilaration of a momentary desire to act altruistically. He fails to experience the delight of learning, like late-breaking news that class is cancelled, that he need not do anything for approval. He fails to experience the terror and, from time to time, joy one receives by answering the question, “What do you want?” He fails to experience Jesus as anything other than a bland, humorless older brother with an endless “To Do” list. He fails, in other words, to experience beauty.

More importantly, he fails to experience the free gift of God’s grace, love and forgiveness — which we receive in spite of ourselves.

Unlike Mockingbird, I do not criticise pastors for encouraging their congregations to read the Bible, which is the key to understanding Christianity, supplemented by confessions of faith. The important thing is that we understand what Scripture says in toto.

However, very few pastors preach this message. Very few explain the Gospel and that the Old Testament points from the beginning to Jesus Christ. Very few preach about the perfect love God extends to all those who imperfectly love His Son. Very few discuss the freedom we have in Christ. Very few deliver the Good News in a positive way; there’s always a qualifier. My vicar said to me out of the blue, ‘There’s so much you can get involved in — we have so many church programmes’. He didn’t mention Scripture or faith. The New Perspectives on Paul, church growth, the social gospel and toxic churches represent varying degrees of this semi-Pelagianism and absence of divine grace.

So, is it any wonder then that many Christians in a multifaith world fall away from the Church because something doesn’t add up, yet they cannot put their finger on it. For them — as was true for me — there is no difference between Christianity, Judaism or Islam; all are based on works, legalism, collectivism and, for Christianity and Islam at least, punishment.

More to follow on this topic.

Tomorrow: A young man criticises the Church

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.

Also:

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

… 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

Continuing a brief series on the errors of N T Wright’s New Perspectives on Paul (NPP), today’s post features Michael Horton‘s point of view.

Already we have seen that Dr Wright — today’s foremost champion of NPP — and his fellow travellers (theologians and historians) see St Paul’s epistles as an instruction for ecumenism, works-based salvation and political involvement.  Dr Horton explores these further, calling them Wright’s ‘third way’.  Emphases mine below.

First, here are three quotes from Wright on NPP:

Once we relocate justification, moving it from the discussion of how people become Christians to the discussion of how we know that someone is a Christian, we have a powerful incentive to work together across denominational barriers.
—“New Perspectives on Paul,” in Justification in Perspective, p. 261

And, as I have argued before and hope to show here once more, many of the supposedly ordinary readings within the Western Protestant traditions have simply not paid attention to what Paul actually wrote. – Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (IVP, 2009), p. 50

[Justification] has regularly been made to do duty for the entire picture of God’s reconciling action toward the human race, covering everything from God’s free love and grace, through the sending of the son to die and rise again for sinners, through the preaching of the gospel, the work of the Spirit, the arousal of faith in human hearts and minds, the development of Christian character and conduct, the assurance of ultimate salvation, and the safe passage through final judgment to that destination” – Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, p. 86

Michael Horton responded to these quotes and more in an article, ‘Justification and Ecumenism’, which appeared on Ligonier Ministries’ Tabletalk. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), a host of the White Horse Inn broadcasts and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Much of ‘Justification and Ecumenism’ follows:

One of the great connections that N.T. Wright emphasizes in his work is the one between soteriology (how we are saved) and ecclesiology (the church: who are the true people of God?). He properly (and repeatedly) reminds us that Paul saw these questions as inseparable. Interestingly, so did the Protestant Reformers, as historians have often observed. As on so many points, however, Wright distorts the Reformation positions and almost never footnotes his sweeping allegations. For example, in his latest book, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (IVP, 2009), Wright once more complains that the Reformers simply did not read Paul with his own concerns in mind, such as God’s plan “to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10), with the two peoples (Jew and Gentile) becoming one family in Christ in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham (p. 43).

A cursory reading of Calvin’s Ephesians commentary tells a different story …

In this, as in his earlier works, Wright practically never offers a single footnote for his manifold assertions concerning Reformation exegesis. However, he hangs much on the slender thread of several quotes from Alister McGrath’s expansive yet controversial study of the history of the doctrine of justification, Iustitia Dei ...

The main point of the Reformation was to stress the distinction between justification and the other gifts of salvation. It was Rome’s confusion of justification and sanctification that the Reformers challenged.

For all of his concern about ecclesiology in Paul, Wright does not seem as concerned about the actual positions that Protestant churches have held. In this murkiness, he is able to put forward his own view as a “third way” beyond the impasse of Rome and the Reformation. As it turns out, his alternative surrenders the doctrine of justification as the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience in favor of a concept of justification as the anticipation of a final justification based on “an entire life lived” — ours, that is.

At the heart of historical criticisms of the Reformation view has been the charge that it does not have any place for human activity. New Perspective trailblazers E .P. Sanders and James D.G. Dunn approach Paul from an Arminian perspective (the latter having once been a Calvinist). N.T. Wright claims to avoid such debates (as do Sanders and Dunn), but everyone interprets Scripture from a particular theological perspective. Wright also has a clear agenda to get Christians to transform the world by “living the gospel” (complete with a very specific political prescription). He writes concerning justification: “If Christians could only get this right,” says Wright, “they would find that not only would they be believing the gospel, they would be practicing it; and that is the best basis for proclaiming it” (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 159). Faith and holiness belong together, Wright properly insists, but the only way to keep them together, he seems to suggest, is to make them the same thing.

Far from being suspicious, we should welcome any ecumenical consensus that emerges out of the clear biblical testimony to God’s justification of the ungodly by imputing their sins to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to them through faith alone. However, the consensus that seems to be emerging in our day, as in other eras, seems to find its core sympathy in a more synergistic (Arminian and Roman Catholic) framework.

The Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion adopted the Lutheran and Calvinist views of justification. However, since the Book of Common Prayer was discarded in the 1970s (United States) and 1980s (Great Britain), the Articles and their doctrine have been neglected and are now largely forgotten.  Even before that, however, 19th century religious movements within Anglicanism diluted them. Both Methodism and Anglo-Catholicism emphasised semi-Pelagianism over Spirit-inspired fruits of faith and, in doing so, caused generations of Anglicans to confuse the two. I do not know if Wright grew up with an Arminian (free-will) or an Anglo-Catholic approach to his faith but it seems possible.

What I do know is that most of the Anglicans I meet in Britain are one or the other. Consequently, they have a problem understanding the Doctrine of Grace.  When Christ said ‘It is finished’ as He took His final breath, He meant that He redeemed our sins. The conscious works-based striving for notional holiness and thinking — including works of political activism — is severely misguided.

I shall explore the Doctrine of Grace in a couple of weeks’ time. For now, here is a reminder of what the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (p. 3 of the link) state on justification and works. There is no ambiguity or mystery about them — and they draw from St Paul’s epistles:

XI. Of the Justification of Man.

WE are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort; as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

XII. Of Good Works.

ALBEIT that good works, which are the fruits of faith and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins and endure the severity of God’s judgement, yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.

XIII. Of Works before Justification.

WORKS done before the grace of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea, rather for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.

XIV. Of Works of Supererogation.

VOLUNTARY works besides, over and above, God’s commandments which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety. For by them men do declare that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for His sake than of bounden duty is required: Whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to do, say, We be unprofitable servants.

N T Wright might well be a candidate to succeed Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury. It appears that he knows more than the Reformers, including those who put together the doctrine of the Anglican Church.

Next week: J V Fesko, Sinclair Ferguson, Ligon Duncan and Carl Trueman on NPP

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