Wednesday, December 31, 2008

And Can It Be That I Should Gain?

This is one of my favorite songs. Charles Wesley wrote the words in 1738. Most churches don't sing it any more, so the words might be fresh to you. Reflect and enjoy.

"And Can It Be That I Should Gain?"
by Charles Wesley

And can it be that I should gain
An int'rest in the Savior's blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

'Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies!
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love Divine!
'Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
'Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father's throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam's helpless race:
'Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.
'Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness Divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The New Perspective on Paul--I'm Convinced

2008 shall henceforth be known as the year that I converted to the New Perspective on Paul. I don't know to whom it will be known as that, but it's true nonetheless.

Most of the New Testament theology books that I read in 2007 and 2008 dealt with the issue, including:

  • The New Perspective on Paul by James Dunn
  • The Theology of Paul the Apostle by James Dunn
  • The Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon (NIGTC) by James Dunn
  • The Epistle to the Galatians (Black's) by James Dunn
  • The Climax of the Covenant by N.T. Wright
  • Colossians and Philemon (Tyndale) by N.T. Wright
  • Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective by Francis Watson
  • Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul's Gospel by Seyoon Kim
I would like to do a series of posts about the New Perspective--what it is, why I am convinced it is right, and what weaknesses I see in it. It's going to be a lot of work, but I hope to do it nonetheless.

In short, the New Perspective is a reinterpretation of Paul's view of the law, the Gentiles, and the Jewish people. The Lutheran interpretation of Paul and the law dominated theological discussions of Paul for 400 years, until E.P. Sanders challenged it with Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977 and Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People in 1983.

Sanders argued that Second Temple Judaism should not be characterized as "legalistic," but by a term he coined, "covenental nomism." According to Sanders, the ancient Jews were not trying to "earn their salvation by good works" in the same way that 16th century Roman Catholics were. Instead, Judaism was a religion of grace. God elected Israel purely by grace, and faithful Jews responded to this election by obeying the Mosaic Law. Obeying the law was a crucial part of the covenant, but obedience in no way "earned" anyone salvation. (This is similar to the Reformed view of the role of the law in Christianity. "Salvation is by faith alone, but the faith that saves is not alone.") Perfect obedience was never expected, and the sacrificial system was put in place to atone for sin.

In his letters, Paul strongly condemns the religious system of his Jewish contemporaries in favor of a system he calls "justification by faith." In the Lutheran system, justification by faith has been contrasted with "doing good works to earn your salvation" so that the traditional antithesis in Paul is "believing" versus "doing."

The Lutheran understanding of Paul has problems, though. Paul isn't against good works at all. He encourages them. Further, if the Judaism Paul opposed didn't believe in "salvation by good works," what was Paul's problem with it? What did he mean when he said, "By works of the law no man will be justified"? If the contrast wasn't "believing" versus "doing," what was it? If Judaism was a "religion of grace," how was Christianity different than it? These are the questions that the New Perspective seeks to answer.

Not every New Testament scholar accepts the New Perspective. Many do, the most significant being Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright. There is disagreement even among adherents to the New Perspective about Paul's attitude toward the law and Judaism.

Like I said, I will gather my thoughts about what I think are the most poignant ideas of the New Perspective, and I will post more in the future.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Leaders are Readers

They always told us at Cedarville, "Leaders are readers." Here is what the commander-and-chief of the U.S. has been reading over the last 3 years. You will be surprised. (HT Between Two Worlds.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

John Armstrong on Evangelical Political Bullying (HT Boar's Head Tavern)

John Armstrong has a great article on his blog about the forced resignation of Richard Cizik, former Vice-President of the National Association of Evangelicals. (HT Boar's Head Tavern)

In short, Armstrong suggests that Cizik was removed, not because of what he believed, but because he challenged powerful evangelical leaders. Here's an excerpt from the article, in which Armstrong discusses the need to create Benedict Arnold's in conservative evangelicalism:

A man who is involved in this kind of highly charged political intrigue told me back in the 1990s that if I would take an occasional controversial stand on a political issue, a stand that would appeal specifically to conservative standards of the sort he believed important, I would drive up my donor base dramatically. I was appalled. I remain appalled to this day, more than a decade later. In fact, I am angry when I see this still happening. It is not the sole reason these things happen but everyone on the inside of donor-driven evangelical organizations knows that sooner or later issues do raise money. And the best money is mostly found among those who are over 55 years of age. Appeal to their sense of what is being lost in America through capitulation to “liberalism” and compromise in the evangelical camp and people will write big checks. A good old-fashioned attack on a compromiser in one’s own ranks is needed to sell the mission. It seems that we need our evangelical Benedict Arnold’s to keep the war going much of the time.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Jesus Creed on Obama, Catholics, and FOCA

Guest writer Mary Veeneman will be posting a series on Obama and the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) on Jesuscreed. FOCA is huge because many think it will lead to the closing of Catholic hospitals that refuse to perform abortions.

In the first article, Veeneman discusses Fr Jay Scott Newman's decision to deny communion to Obama supporters because of "material cooperation with intrinsic evil." Is Fr Newman right? Are Obama supporters ethically liable for the effects of FOCA?

Spiritual Formation

How do we know that Christianity is true?

The other day I had lunch with a guy who used to be a Mormon. He was a serious Mormon--a high priest or something like that. He knew all of the secret handshakes, had full access to the temple--the whole deal. But then one day he realized that it was all smoke and mirrors. He didn't believe it, and over the next few years he worked up the chutzpa to renounce his faith. A few years after that, he was involved in a Christian community, met Jesus, and became a Christian. Now he is a missionary. Very cool story.

When I was talking to him, the question on my mind that I wanted to ask, but didn't know how (the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss this guy's spiritual journey), was "Does Christianity 'work' better than Mormonism?" What I mean by that is, "Now that you are a Christian, do you have a newfound spiritual power that you did not have when you were a Mormon? Is there a noticable difference?"

I've been reading a lot of Paul lately. He was a pretty intense guy. Didn't pull any punches. He wrote, "You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation-- but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God." (Rom 8:9–14 NIV)

Starting in verse 9, Paul says something to the extent of, "How do you know if you belong to Christ? If the Spirit of God lives in you, you belong to Christ." Notice that the known proposition in this statement is whether or not the Spirit lives in you, and the unknown proposition is whether or not you belong to Christ.

Paul also wrote, "I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing-- if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?" (Gal 3:2–5 NIV)

In this passage, Paul proves that justification is through faith and not works of the law because the Galatian community received the Spirit by believing what they heard. In other words, the known proposition was that the Galatians had received the spirit by faith, and the unknown proposition was whether they would be perfected by faith or by works of the law.

In both Romans and Galatians, Paul used the Christian community's experience of the Spirit as proof that what he was saying was true. In short, the Holy Spirit's work in our lives is "proof" that our faith is true.

So that brings me back to the question for my former-Mormon friend--Does Christianity "work" better than Mormonism? Does it "work" better than Islam? Buddhism? Paganism? Therapy?

In Galatians 5, Paul writes about what the work of the Holy Spirit looks like in your life. He writes, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law." (Gal 5:22–23 NIV)

I hope to teach a class on spiritual formation in the Spring, and I am wrestling with what spiritual formation looks like and how it is fostered. Spiritual formation is easy if you measure it in terms of how often you read the Bible, how often you pray, how often you go to church, etc. But, if spiritual formation is measured in terms of how loving you are, how joyous, how peaceful, patient, and kind you are, then it becomes a lot harder.

What 12 steps do you give someone to make them more loving?

But then again, isn't that the heart of the Gospel? Isn't that what the Holy Spirit is supposed to do in our lives? Shouldn't it be a no-brainer? Paul seems to take it for granted that the Holy Spirit was at work in the Christian communities, making the Christians more loving, joyous, etc.

I have wrestling with my own heart lately. Richard Foster summarizes human vices in three character flaws--lust, greed, and pride. I think that about sums it up. So, as I prepare this spiritual formation class, I am asking myself, "Am I less lustful than I was a year ago? Am I less prideful? Am I less greedy?" If I can't answer those questions, "Yes," then the way I practice my faith is not working, and therefore it is not of the Spirit and it is not true.