Monday, June 29, 2009

How Shall We Sing The LORD's Song In A Strange Land?

In Scripture we are often reminded that God's people are presently exiled from their Homeland.

For example, in reviewing the faith of the saints of the Old Testament, the writer of Hebrews tells us that they "... died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city." (Heb 11:13-16)

Augustine expounded on this theme at length, reminding us that the disciple of Jesus, while temporarily sojourning in the city of man is, in reality, already a citizen of the eternal City of God. In that the two cities are utterly opposed to each other, the disciple, insofar as he faithfully represents the City of God in the midst of the city of man, is constantly engaged in a great battle against powers both within and outside himself that oppose the City of God.

The opposition from the world, the flesh, and the devil takes many forms, but all the diverse forms have in common the practical denial of the existence or value of the City of God. For example, if the evil one tempts us, he tempts us with either pleasure or avoidance of pain in this present world. And, if our evil nature, being blind and dead to the things of God, yields to such temptation, it denies in practice the reality and infinite value of the City of God.

So, all opposition that we face, whether from within or from without, is, in reality, an attack on our faith. Not "faith" as a mere mental assent to the proposition that God, being infinite and good, condescended to make (and satisfy) a covenant of grace through the blood of the Cross to save ruined sinners; but faith in the sense of a revelation from God to us that He made and kept a covenant with us to save us from our sins.

The evil one seeks to destroy such faith. Ironically, however, true faith from God cannot fail. It is only false faith that can fail. The only effect that temptation has on true, God-given faith is to prove (when all temptation is complete) that the faith was genuine and well-founded. "For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world -- our faith." (I John 5:4).

When discussing the situation of the Christian in the midst of the world, however, it is misleading to talk exclusively in defensive terms of resisting attack and temptation. While it is certainly true that we are attacked, through faith we understand the greater reality that it is Satan and the city of man that are being invaded. That is to say, it is the Kingdom of God which is invading the kingdom of the devil and that will ultimately supplant it. "The kingdom of the world has become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ" (Rev 11:15).

So what does this mean practically? Or, as the question in the title of this post asks "How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land?" (Ps 137:4)

We sing the LORD's song in a strange land by realizing that it is the City of God that is real and the city of man that is the imagination and the dream (Psalm 73:20). We sing the LORD's song by asserting that what is real and true is what God has revealed about Himself, regardless of what appears to be true. "Let God be true though everyone were a liar" (Rom 3:4)

We do not sing the LORD's song by primarily seeking to obey the Law -- although keeping the Law will undoubtedly be a consequence of considering the knowledge of God and His glory to be our highest good. Nor do we sing the LORD's song by seeking primarily to be loving toward others -- although it is certainly true that those who are entranced by God's glory as revealed in Jesus will certainly be loving. We sing the LORD's song, even here in a strange land, by becoming and remaining intoxicated and entranced by the infinite value of God as revealed in Jesus our Lord.

"And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. " (2Co 4:3-7)

Blessings until next time, ...

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Justification Debate Between Piper and Wright

A debate has been going on for some time between John Piper and Bishop N. T. Wright concerning how the doctrine of justification is to be understood.

In the 1970's, Bishop Wright (who is the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England), was reading a commentary by C.E.P. Cranfield on Romans and was having trouble reconciling what Paul was saying (positively) about the Law in Romans with what Paul was saying about the Law (negatively) in Galatians. His conclusion was that something was wrong with his understanding of Paul's terminology and/or of Paul's perspective. He experimented with the idea of redefining terms a little and found a formulation which made sense to him. In this formulation, he redefined the term "justification" to mean "the forensic declaration by God that a person is a member of the covenant community". And he came to the conclusion that one of Paul's principal aims in Romans is to clarify the proper use of the Law in the context of a covenant community which included both ethnic Jews and Gentiles.

Over the years, he borrowed heavily (but eclectically) from the writings of people like E.P. Sanders and other proponents of the "New Perspective on Paul") in supporting his reinterpretation. His views are expressed in multiple books and articles, which can be found referenced at and at

Bishop Wright's ideas have caused a good bit of discomfort, especially to those Protestants of the Reformed persuasion. The particular aspects which have probably caused the most controversy are:

(1) The assertion that people are justified (according to Wright's definition above, not according to the classical definition) on the basis of the whole life they have lived. Some have understood this as saying that the basis for God's forensic (the term forensic means someone's -- in this case God's -- courtroom declaration that something is so) declaration of membership in the covenant community is whether one has evidenced one's faith by performing works of righteousness - and this appears to violate the Reformation principle of sola fide.

(2) The assertion that the Greek phrase dikaiosoune theou (the righteousness of God) refers solely to God's faithfulness and that it is not a quantity to be imputed to the people in the covenant.

In 2007, Dr. Piper responded to Bishop Wright in his book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright, asserting that Wright's view of justification is an unjustified (pardon the pun) deviation from historical orthodoxy. Just this year, Bishop Wright published his response in a new book Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision.

I've just begun to consider the debate carefully -- and I plan to make updates here as I have further thoughts. But my my early sense is that Dr. Piper is correct to be highly concerned about some of the statements and emphases of Bishop Wright. I also do believe that some of Dr. Piper's concerns are a little overdone and exaggerate the differences between their points of view.

To be sure, I find N.T. Wright's definition of "the righteousness of God" as articulated in "On Becoming the Righteousness of God" to be highly idiosyncratic and unsupportable, which weakens that particular point as a pillar for Wright's central contention that Paul views salvation primarily through the lens of membership in the covenant community of the children of Abraham.

But I do also think that Bishop Wright is onto something with the centrality of the Jew/Gentile question in the thinking of Paul. I also applaud Bishop Wright for considering honestly how to reconcile those passages in Paul that seem to deal with final judgment on the basis of works with those which say that we are justified by grace through faith -- although I hasten to say that I'm not fully convinced by those of his arguments that I have seen.

However, the most important issue that I will be trying to clarify is Bishop Wright's view of the basis of God's forensic declaration of justification. I think that the only bases for God's declaration of someone as a member of the covenant community are his sovereign choice and the satisfactory propitiation of the death of Jesus; and that the evidence that someone is a member of the covenant community is faith which shows itself in obedience to God.

In short, if Wright is saying (and at this point I'm not sure he is) that good works are the basis of God's declaration instead of the fruit of God's declaration then I believe he's in serious error. But I'll have a better sense of it after I more fully evaluate what he's written.

I look forward to hearing your points of view.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Troubling Reading for Troubled Times

I've been reading Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by H.W. Brands this week. It's very timely reading. I've been especially fascinated by the chapters on the famous Hundred Days -- i.e., the first hundred days of Roosevelt's first term, in which he and a pliant Congress delivered an enormous amount of legislation which remade many of the foundations of our Republic.

Well, actually, I don't know that "fascinated" is the right word. "Horrified" might have been better.

I hadn't known about so much of what happened in those years -- ranging from the Blue Eagle campaign to the slaughter of pigs and destruction of milk in the face of widespread hunger to "prop up demand". It's amazing how little resemblance what actually happened bears to the simplistic popular understanding so many people hold that "Franklin Roosevelt brought us through the Depression". I was also struck by how common it was among Democratic demagogues in those days to admire European fascism and to self-consciously model things along this statist, fascist ideal. (As an aside, it's one of the great accomplishments of the political left to have attached the label "fascist" to conservatives when historically all the fascist movements were movements of the left -- another good read on the latter topic is Liberal Fascism, by Jonah Goldberg.)

There are many parallels between those early days of the Roosevelt presidency and the early days of the Obama presidency. First, and most obviously in the pervasive atmosphere of "crisis" which pervades the political scene. Second, in the extent to which class warfare and wealth redistribution are popular matters of political debate. And third, in the characterization of the existing problems as having been caused by "private capital" (apparently without the involvement of government).

The parallels are ominous, and as a result, the reading is somewhat depressing. Notably because in some ways we have even fewer defenses against socialist engineering now than we had then. For instance, the Supreme Court, which played a key role in slowing the advance of the New Deal in the 1930's seems unlikely today to stand in the way of statist intrusions (witness the refusal to protect the rights of contract of the bondholders of GM and Chrysler).

So why read something so depressing?

For a couple of reasons.

First, because I'd like to understand what it is that causes people to be open to the suasion of "Demo-gogues".

Second, because I believe there will be good evidence, data, and anecdotes to be used in convincing people of how foolish these statist projects are.

Third, because I'm fascinated by the psychology of people like Franklin D. Roosevelt. Did he really believe in these programs? Why? Were his motivations at root philosophical or political? How much of his belief in them was consciously motivated vs. subconsciously motivated? It's been said (and I believe it) that people have a remarkable ability to see what they want to see. Why was FDR inclined to see the need for state intervention as a positive good?

Fourth, because it's possible, just possible, that I might be wrong in some of what I believe about the follies of New Deal socialism. And I want to remain open and rational.

In any case, the book is well-written, generally balanced, and very timely. I recommend it.