Hymns and Atonement Theory

26 06 2011

I have recently attended two ordinations where a famous Christian hymn was sung. It’s lyrics were changed at one so as not to offend an intolerant group of liberal agitators in our denomination, at the other I was told that a few of the congregation chose not to sing the line (I did not notice their silence personally). Quite apart from the fact that, out of respect for others, I sing plenty of liberal tripe without grumbling and display none of their angst about this, I wonder how they square their intolerance for the lyric of this hymn with the recognition of the United Reformed Church’s own particular heritage of faith in statements of Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Churches of Christ.

In particular the language of this hymn can be drawn completely from the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration where the ‘wrath of God’ against unredeemed humanity is affirmed (WC: chapter VI paragraph VI, SD: chapter 6 paragraph 6) and where Christ’s work upon the cross is seen as ‘undertaking the punishment due to us’ (SD: chapter 8 paragraph 4) and ‘satisfying the Father’s justice on our behalf’ (WC: chapter XI paragraph III and SD: chapter 11 paragraph 3). Ironically, whilst we state in the ordination service that we acknowledge these declarations in the statement concerning the nature faith and order, it appears that we may not recognise these declarations when they confront us in our hymnary!

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A Sermon on Christmas

5 12 2010

“He, through whom time was made, was made in time;
And He, older by eternity that the world itself, was younger in age than many of His servants in the world;
He, who made man, was made man;
He was given existence by a mother whom He brought into existence;
He was carried in hands which He formed;
He nursed at breasts which He filled;
He cried like a babe in the manger in speechless infancy — this Word without which human eloquence is speechless!”
 – St Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 A.D.)





Considering ‘Justification’ is Wright right?

5 04 2010

I thought that I would revisit the topic of atonement or more particularly faith and justification. I have for a little while been just that tiny bit edgy about justification as I have noted the war of words between pastor-theologians like John Piper and the scholar-bishop N.T. Wright. Coming from a Reformed position I have always understood ‘justification’ as that declaration of righteousness made on the basis of our faith in Christ’s righteousness. Upon the cross a great exchange takes place as He for us is made to be sin who knew no sin (1 Cor. 5:21) and His sinless record is imputed to us.

Quite frankly the New Perspective on Paul had just passed me by; during my undergraduate studies I knew well enough that I should avoid the quagmire of current evangelical debate and confusion on the subject. However, this didn’t stop me from taking an interest in such an important aspect of biblical theology, nor in the growing debates surrounding it. In recent years I’ve spent more time thinking of practical theology (which in my view is too estranged from biblical and doctrinal theology to truly sustain itself), missiology and ecclesiology than biblical studies.   

I have of course noted the recent spat between a number of mainly American evangelicals and N.T. Wright on the subject. John Piper a man I greatly admire wrote a very influential book the Future of Justification and Tom Wright responded with Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. I have also read the thoughts of other influential commentators on this debate (such as Ben Witherington III)

In terms of what has already been argued I am not sure that I will add anything fresh, but as an observer I will say that the debate needs to be put into context. I have to say I sympathise with the intentions of both Wright and Piper but disagree with much secondary scholarship. I find that Wright calling people like the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions and D.A. Carson somehow ‘sub-biblical’, simply because they don’t agree with him, unwarranted. I also find the kind of Reformed evangelical tribalism that wants to denounce and reject Wright as ‘on his way to Rome’ ridiculous.

I have just read a paper by N.T. Wright entitled ‘Justification: the Biblical Basis and its relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism’ and given the range of views on justification quite frankly I’m surprised by how tame he appears – no faith + works stuff, no eschatological delay regarding justification, quite the opposite. He states clearly:

‘The positive result of justification is that we live for God because Christ has died for us. Good works, as the Reformers never tired of saying, are done not to earn salvation but out of gratitude for it: not out of fear lest we should be lost after all but out of joy that we are saved after all.’

‘Justification’, Wright says, ‘is God’s righteous declaration in the present that the person who believes in the risen Lord Jesus Christ is a member of the covenant family, whose sins have been dealt with on the cross and who is therefore assured of eternal life’.

The real conflict in this debate seems much smaller than many commentators like to make it. I suspect the differences between N.T. Wright and the Reformers to be slight indeed. N.T. Wright seems to be stressing that justification is not a means of applying salvation but is God’s declaration that on the basis of the gift evident in faith both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ have already become Christians (and in becoming Christians have appropriated all the benefits of salvation past, present and future). Seen in this context faith does not enable us to receive an imputed righteousness that was Christ’s, but rather this faith unites us to the Covenant people (the Old Testament and New Testament Church) and in making us a part of this we are saved.

Wright believes that ‘justification’ in his scheme does not require drastic changes to our soteriology but raises our ecclesiology (the importance of outward practice of faith) and provides a solution to many pastoral crises which revolve around the existential doubt. It also undermines the growing cult of personal religion (which we fancy to be justifying faith). Wright makes it clear that the cutting point for this doctrine is not the outward practices of the faith that characterise say the Anglo-Catholics, but rather the knife is placed at the heart of those who believe that there can be many ways of salvation apart from the incarnation, cross and resurrection of the Lord of all.

I don’t know how this squares with all that Wright has said elsewhere but as someone from a Reformed Church (albeit one beset by liberalism) and as someone who respects both John Piper and N.T. Wright, I found this very helpful. It can be found at the http://www.ntwrightpage.com. I hope you enjoy it too.

For Piper Wright’s rejection of the personal imputation of righteousness by faith is a serious error that he fears creates a vacuum that may be filled with a return to an imparted righteousness and a process understanding of salvation. Wright, however, does not seem to have fallen into these errors (despite the fact that some of his “supporters” present him as defending this position). What I have to say in Piper’s favour is that Christ’s righteousness does appear to be imputed to us. We are told in 1 Cor. 1:30, for example, that being in Christ Jesus, ‘he has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.’ And to Wright’s credit he acknowledges that this appears to be what is taught in this passage. His main argument is that it is not explicitly taught in Romans… but I will leave you to make your own mind up about that!





A Reflection for Good Friday

2 04 2010

When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.  When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. So he asked them again, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.” This was to fulfil the word that he had spoken: “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.” Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

–      John 18: 1-11

Jesus goes out to a quiet lonely place, not far from the city, a place of olive groves, a space in which to pray and reflect, but this place of solitude is invaded, not by friends (who fall asleep when Jesus calls for them to be vigilant) but by soldiers and enemies of his mission. In John’s Gospel we are told that secular and religious powers of Jesus’ day come together in this one act of lawless brutality. Not in the daylight but under the cover of darkness, Judas goes out from among the disciples and we are told ‘it was night’, then with lanterns and torches and weapons they come to arrest him, Jesus, the light of the world.

Like so many stories we hear of victims of injustice, Jesus is arrested and tried at night (in violation of the law), the testimony of his accusers is confused, and the trial presided over by a biased judge. Jesus knows what is about to come upon him, he is to drink the cup of suffering, yet he does not fight instead he steps forward and assures his captors that he is the man they seek. Notice how they respond seized by fear they step back and fall to the ground. These warriors, these men bearing arms, come to overpower this man of peace but cannot help but draw back as this man steps forward with an unexpected dignity, majesty and power.

Time and time again we come up against Jesus with our anger and violence, fuelled by our own (often self-inflicted) hurts, and often we are disarmed by these same words, ‘I am he’. Looking at him we are startled by the man we see, a man-God, who knows our troubles, who has experienced betrayal, who has suffered injustice, pain and loss. Confronted with Christ, the man, we step back, we fall down, and for a moment we are disarmed as we comprehend something of God in this man’s humanity.

For a moment it seems as though Jesus is victorious, these men of weapons act as though they are going to surrender to this man of peace. Then Peter steps forward, sword in hand, to take advantage of the situation, but Jesus rebukes him. What utter grace? Jesus who knows all that would happen to him, the false trial, the beating, the scourging, the mocking, the pain of the cross, thinks not of the violence done to him but of those perpetrating it against him. ‘Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?’

Jesus understands that for these men to truly surrender and to find amnesty, their deeds of darkness must be accounted for, their debt must be cancelled, their sin-burden must be carried, and so he chooses, in that moment, the cross. With all its ugliness, cruelty and agony, Jesus chooses it. For the cross is the consequence of sin and at the cross the true nature of sin is revealed. In the cross we see sin’s brutality, that it would have us murder God, the Source of all beauty and truth and light.

Yet, just as the cross exposes sin for what it is, so through embracing the cross Jesus has borne the curse of sin to bring us peace. Upon the cross the deeds of darkness are accounted for, the price for sin is paid, and the burden of sin is carried. And so that is why we call this Good Friday: good!

 For surely he has borne our griefs
   and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
   smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
   he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
   and with his stripes we are healed

–      Isaiah 53:4-5





Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)

29 03 2010

It is impossible to envisage the renewal and reformation of the church without Martin Luther. In his day, he stood up against many evil practices in the Catholic Church. Chief amongst these was the practice of selling indulgences; assurances of forgiveness given in exchange for a gift or donation to the church.

After many years of Biblical study, as a Catholic scholar and monk, Luther came to see that the forgiveness was freely available through faith alone in Christ alone. Constrained by his conscience he challenged the practice of selling indulgences for this, in 1521, he was excommunicated.

On the 18th April 1521, Martin Luther appeared at the Council (Diet) of Worms where Johann Eck presented Luther with copies of his writings and asked him two direct questions; first was he the author these works and then secondly whether he still stood by their contents. Luther acknowledged his writings but requested time to consider the second question. He prayed, consulted friends and colleagues, and the next day he gave his response:

‘Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.’

Over the following five days, several private conferences were held to determine Luther’s fate. Finally, the Catholic Church decided to outlaw Luther, ban his literature and require his immediate arrest. All of Europe was in uproar. Luther went into hiding, under the protection of Fredrick III the Elector of Saxony, and over the next year he translated the New Testament into German and penned several doctrinal works.

Central to Martin Luther’s understanding of the Gospel is justification, God’s gracious act of declaring sinners righteous! In response to the humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, Luther maintained that a Christian’s righteousness doesn’t simply come from following Christ but is actually the righteousness of Christ.  For righteousness comes by faith in God, ‘we have been justified by faith and we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 5:1).

As a true evangelical Martin Luther believed the Bible to be the only source of divinely revealed knowledge. Indeed, he wrote, ‘let the man who would hear God speak read Holy Scripture’ and he translated that Bible into the language of the common people. In saying and doing this he established the first principle of the reformation, sola Scriptura this is the doctrine that everything necessary for salvation is contained in Holy Scripture and that Scripture is the only infallible standard for our faith.





church/kingdom and church/mission

29 05 2007

i was asked to answer some questions in a methodist fresh expressions research forum. specifically on the role of church/mission and church/kingdom as concepts within methodist fresh expressions. i thought i would repeat my answer here:

hmm… i’m not sure if i’m qualified to speak on methodist fresh expressions as i’m not a methodist myself coming from the reformed tradition. however, i have read wesley’s sermons and believe you might find wisdom in wesley’s seventh sermon entitled ‘the way to the kingdom’. it makes it clear that wesley saw two legs to the kingdom of God, the first being holiness/obedience and the second being happiness/peace in the heart. the way, wesley believed or even insisted, must be repentance and belief in the gospel – indeed he wrote, ‘He [God] would set up his kingdom among men, and reign in the hearts of His people’ and also ‘Wheresoever, therefore, the gospel of Christ is preached, this His “kingdom is nigh at hand”.’ – if this then doesn’t identify church and kingdom in the thought of the wesley brothers then i am not sure what will.

i believe one of the dangers of the fresh expressions movement, and perhaps a way not left open by wesley, is to make a false and potentially devestating separation between the church and the kingdom. it seems to me that fresh expressions rides on a wave that sees evangelicals (with a passion for evangelism proclamation of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus) and liberals (who embraced Adolf von Harnack’s emphasis upon the social message of the gospel) united in mission. equally those who might like to disrupt this holy harmony might use a radical, and unwarranted, separation between church and the kingdom as a lever to force apart evangelicals and liberals who are discovering common ground.

so to mission and the church, we agree that it is God’s mission, which the church is invited to participate in. this is in keeping with the methodist doctrine of prevenient grace but the goal is that God would reign (establish his kingdom) in the hearts of his people, the consequences of which are social holiness. without either of these, repentance or social holiness, the gospel of Jesus proclaimed by Wesley would be incomplete. i think, therefore, the church is both an agent of and result of mission in its most complete sense. the question ‘does “church do” mission or “mission do” church?’ then is answered,’yes, both, and’. but the challenge then is what shape our church should take if its task is to “make disciples” and disciples are to be both church and do mission. both of which are corporate and individual endeavours as the holy community the trinity reveals.

i suspect that we may have failed in our mandate to make disciples because we saw mission as something done by a select group within the church rather than the aim of the entire church. surely discipleship is best expressed not by cerebral creeds and formulas but by active engagement in theological mission. rather than thinking we must do mission to get people through the doors then we must do discipleship, surely we would do better to see mission as something we are calling people to whilst being engaged in ourselves? i am convinced that this is the meaning of the Christian life to meet with God and one another as we respond to God’s call to join His mission in the world.





Penal Substitution Debate Continues…

25 04 2007

It has now been three years since Steve Chalke, seemingly unintentionally, upset the evangelical community by suggesting that its core doctrine of penal substitution could be likened to ‘divine child abuse’.  Certainly some within the community have been quick to distance themselves from Steve, however others have been more sympathetic to Steve’s point of view.

Recently, three scholars connected with Oak Hill theological seminary, Steve Jeffrey, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach, have produced a book called Pierced For Our Transgressions with a website accompanying it to clarify the doctrine of penal substitution.

But just when you thought that was the last word on the subject along comes NT Wright to clarify his position. Justifying and defending a misunderstood Steve Chalke and criticising those both to the left and to the right of him.

In the mean time, this theological debate has resulted in Keswick Ministries and UCCF’s Word Alive event being pulled from Spring Harvest as the Keswick and the UCCF could not agree to Steve Chalke speaking from the Word Alive platform.

I would like to see an end to this damaging and distasteful debate soon. If as Wright and Spring Harvest claim Steve can sign up to the Evangelical Alliance’s new and revised Basis of Faith clarifying his position on penal substitution then we must all receive Steve back into the fold with much celebrations. However, if there is still uncertainty about Steve’s position then that must be clarified openly and immediately before anymore harm comes to the evangelical community.

Having read NT Wright’s position I find it worrying that he is not better informed as to Steve’s public and total rejection of penal substitution (not only in The Lost Message of Jesus but else where and on repeated occasions). Still, I find his defense of penal substitution  and demolition of Jeffrey John heartening.

On a personal note, whilst I have some sympathy with NT Wright’s ‘New Perspective’ it disturbs me that he should consider other scholars such as the authors of Pierced For Our Transgressions and supporters of the book such as Don Carson, I Howard Marshall, and J I Packer to be in someway ‘sub-biblical’ in their views.