How Personal Idols Destroy Community

Readers of this blog know where I stand on N. T. Wright so I’m not going to take the time to qualify this post and I’ll just jump in by saying that last summer I read Wright’s Surprised By Hope (HarperOne, 2008). The book was okay and while I cannot recommend it I can say that at one point Wright makes very important point about how idolatry undermines community.

Wright’s point is that idolatry is more than a mere internal heart problem—idolatry is something each of us project onto others. Idolatry shapes our value (or de-valuation) of others and carries consequences into our families, our communities, and our churches. He writes,

One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around. Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers rather than as human beings. Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sexual objects. Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns. These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch. (p. 182)

That’s a great point. In other words, idolatry—while at root a heart issue—not only affects the sinner but also the community. Idols dehumanize the heart and cause us to act inhumanely towards others.

This idol-projecting point is also made Mark Driscoll’s latest book Doctrine (Crossway, 2010):

If we idolize our gender, we must demonize the other gender. If we idolize our nation, we must demonize other nations. If we idolize our political party, we must demonize other political parties. If we idolize our socioeconomic class, we must demonize other classes. If we idolize our family, we must demonize other families. If we idolize our theological system, we must demonize other theological systems. If we idolize our church, we must demonize other churches. This explains the great polarities and acrimonies that plague every society. If something other than God’s loving grace is the source of our identity and value, we must invariably defend our idol by treating everyone and everything who may call our idol into question as an enemy to be demonized so that we can feel superior to other people and safe with our idol. (350-351)

Wright and Driscoll provide a sobering warning. Personal idols dehumanize us, dehumanize our evaluation of others, and necessarily erode community. Personal idols are not isolated in their consequences. We all have something at stake.

The Future of Justification by John Piper

Book review
The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright
by John Piper

N.T. Wright is a British New Testament scholar and the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England. He’s become known for his controversial teaching on justification and for his statements like: “The discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot – at least in terms of understanding Paul – and they have stayed there ever since.”

Enter pastor and scholar John Piper.

Piper’s highly anticipated new book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Crossway: 2007) is framed around eight fundamental questions raised in the theology of Wright:

  • The gospel is not about how to get saved? (ch. 5)
  • Justification is not how you become a Christian? (ch. 6)
  • Justification is not the gospel? (ch. 6)
  • We are not justified by believing in justification? (ch. 5)
  • The imputation of God’s own righteousness makes no sense at all? (ch. 8 )
  • Future justification is on the basis of the complete life lived? (ch. 7)
  • First-century Judaism had nothing of the alleged self-righteous and boastful legalism? (chs. 9, 10)
  • God’s righteousness is the same as His covenant faithfulness? (ch. 11)

Obviously these are monumental questions, bearing heavy consequences for the Church.

As expected, Piper walks slowly through these questions raised in Wright’s theology and returns frequently to biblical exegesis for his responses. Piper remarks in the intro that he dialogued with Wright during the process of writing the volume, even receiving an 11,000-word response on the first draft to clarify and prevent distortions (p. 10).

Before engaging

But before jumping into the debate, Piper opens the book with very humble words. He is too close to glory to waste his time winning debates and scoring publicity points. It’s a beginning that we can all learn from (see p. 13). This humble introduction is followed by an entire chapter – “On Controversy” – to explain why true Christian unity is not to be found in avoiding disagreements. Taking his cue from Machen, the Church has risen to new heights when celebrating truth within the context of controversy (p. 29).

Where Wright is right

Piper is clear and quick to point out areas of agreement. These include mutual convictions of Scriptural authority, the resurrection of Christ, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, the opposition to homosexuality, and a big-picture understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant (pp. 15-16). And even in elements more closely related to the Gospel, Piper points out continuity. Piper writes, “There is nothing unclear about Wright’s commitment to penal substitution” (p. 48). And later, “Wright’s own words concerning penal substitution seem clear and strong” (p. 52).

Where Wright is wrong

The debate may appear to some as a trifle between one pastor/scholar and another pastor/scholar. But the implications run deep for all Christians. “This book took its origin from the countless conversations and e-mails with those who are losing their grip in this great gospel” (p. 10). Piper’s overriding argument is not that the gospel is being lost by outright dismissal, but in a gradual, incremental relaxing of the gospel due to a blurring of the biblical understanding of justification. So dangerous is this blurring, according to Piper, that at the end of the day, Wright may in fact be reinforcing Roman Catholic soteriology (p. 183)!

Piper is concerned that Wright’s biblical theology has become a grid that brings in too many extra-biblical resources to make interpretive decisions. Piper believes this approach, when it comes to understanding justification, “has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps, confusing” (p. 38).

Wright’s removal of justification from the gospel is also a big problem. Piper writes, “I find it perplexing that Wright is so eager not to let the message of justification be part of the gospel” (p. 82) and “Wright’s zeal to remove justification from the event of becoming a Christian” is “remarkable” (p. 95). Later, Piper highlights the missing element of Christ’s imputed righteousness in Wright’s theology.

Piper takes time clarifying the nature of legalism and the careful distinction of works and justification, a distinction not easily seen in Wright’s writings. In the end, Piper is forced to make the following clarification:

“If we make the mistake of thinking that our works of love (the fruit of God’s Spirit) secure or increase God’s commitment to be completely for us, now and in the last judgment, we compromise the very reason that these works of love exist, namely, to display the infinite worth of Christ and his work as our all-sufficient obedience and all-sufficient sacrifice.

Our mind-set toward our own good works must always be: these works depend on God being totally for us. That’s what the blood and righteousness of Christ have secured and guaranteed forever. Therefore, we must resist every tendency to think of our works as establishing or securing the fact that God is for us forever. It is always the other way around. Because he is for us, he sustains our faith. And through that faith-sustaining work, the Holy Spirit bears the fruit of love” (p. 186).

Piper devotes many pages to the Law-Court theme in justification, where great disparity between Piper and Wright becomes obvious. The book gives the reader a great overview of the most important features of the biblical gospel. A series of six related and helpful appendices conclude the book (pp. 189-225).

I’m thankful for the care taken by Piper to stay close to the issues that directly impact the clarity of the gospel message.

‘Paralyzing perplexity’

The overriding concern for Piper is not that Wright has evil intentions or is viciously dangerous. The problem is that Wright’s message confuses the gospel and breeds confusion where the Church needs to be strongest.

“I am not optimistic that the biblical doctrine of justification will flourish where N. T. Wright’s portrayal holds sway. I do not see his vision as a compelling retelling of what Saint Paul really said. And I think, as it stands now, it will bring great confusion to the church at a point where she desperately needs clarity. I don’t think this confusion is the necessary dust that must settle when great new discoveries have been made. Instead, if I read the situation correctly, the confusion is owing to the ambiguities in Wright’s own expressions, and to the fact that, unlike his treatment of some subjects, his paradigm for justification does not fit well with the ordinary reading of many texts and leaves many ordinary folk not with the rewarding ‘ah-ha’ experience of illumination, but with a paralyzing sense of perplexity” (p. 24).

Later Piper writes, “This book exists because of my own concern that, specifically in the matter of justification by faith, Wright’s approach has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps, confusing.” (p. 38). Even the most straightforward passages on imputation (like 2 Corinthians 5:21) are “shrouded in Wright’s misleading comments” (p. 178).

And most notably, the gospel in its application to sinners becomes vague.

“But there is a misleading ambiguity in Wright’s statement that we are saved not by believing in justification by faith but by believing in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The ambiguity is that it leaves undefined what we believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for. It is not saving faith to believe in Jesus merely for prosperity or health or a better marriage. In Wright’s passion to liberate the gospel from mere individualism and to make it historical and global, he leaves it vague for individual sinners” (pp. 85-86).

Piper is rightly concerned that this vagueness will spread into the pulpit. “Following N.T. Wright in his understanding of justification will result in a kind of preaching that will at best be confusing to the church” (p. 165).

A fitting summary of Piper’s entire case is found early in the book.

“My conviction concerning N.T. Wright is not that he is under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, but that his portrayal of the gospel – and of the doctrine of justification in particular – is so disfigured that is becomes difficult to recognize as biblically faithful. It may be that in his own mind and heart Wright has a clear and firm grasp on the gospel of Christ and the biblical meaning of justification. But in my judgment, what he has written will lead to a kind of preaching that will not announce clearly what makes the lordship of Christ good news for guilty sinners or show those who are overwhelmed with sin how they may stand righteous in the presence of God” (p. 15).

Conclusion

It’s right for the Church to jealously guard the clear and biblical understanding of how sinners are brought into a right relationship with God. And it’s at this critical place, over the battle for our understanding of justification as the personal application of Christ’s work to a sinner’s soul, where Wright’s theology simply falls apart. This is an error the Church cannot afford to entertain.

Whether Piper has clearly and fairly represented Wright at every detail is a conclusion I’ll leave for those more connected to the discussion. What is certain is that The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright is a book thoroughly centered on clear exegesis of Scripture on the topic of justification. You don’t need a background in the Wright/Piper debate to gain a better appreciation of – and a firmer hold on – the biblical message of the gospel.

IMG_9259.ed.jpg

Title: The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright
Author: John Piper
Reading level: 3.0/5.0 > moderately difficult at times
Boards: paperback
Pages: 239
Volumes: 1
Dust jacket: no
Binding: glue
Paper: white and clean
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type
Publisher: Crossway
Year: 2007
Price USD: $11.99 from Monergism
ISBN
: 9781581349641, 1581349645

Our holiness and zeal purchased in the Cross

tsslogo.jpgI’ll never forget the glorious day God opened my eyes to see that everything in the Christian life centers around the Cross. It was reminiscent of viewing the massive Rocky Mountains for the first time — having my breath taken away by the size and grandeur of their jagged features, snow-topped summits, and cloud-ripping peaks.

About four years after my conversion, I was preparing to deliver a short message on Titus 3:4-7. The intention was to study this passage to prepare an evangelistic message on a local college campus. The passage reads:

4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

God’s glorious grace saves us purely on the basis of His own mercy, apart from anything we could ever merit from Him. The works we do in ‘righteousness’ are nothing in His sight. We are redeemed in Christ alone, and we can be justified in Him alone. On the basis of the Cross and God’s grace alone, we can possess the hope of eternal life.

These glorious truths sounds pretty evangelistic. Well, kinda.

As an expositor I was trying to come to grips with this passage and the context (which did not seem evangelistic). These passages are embedded between a call for obedience before and a call for obedience after. Listen to the next verse: “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (v. 8).

Over the course of that week of study and meditation, God kindly revealed to me that the Cross is bigger than evangelism and conversion! Being reminded of the Cross is for “those who have believed.” From here God showed me the dangers of forgetting the Cross and how the Cross is central to the everyday life of the Christian, producing joy and earnest obedience.

As you can imagine, I was shocked and surprised at these discoveries. Preparation on the passage continued but within a new understanding of the Cross in the Christian life. I would later title the message, A Gospel Tract for Believers.

When I want to be amazed at the Cross, I return to Titus.

The Purchase of the Cross

Recently I was back in Titus, being amazed again. This time our gracious God opened my eyes to the beauty of the completed work of Christ on the Cross. Listen to Titus 2:11-14:

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

That final verse made my jaw drop because here Paul unfolds the purchase of Christ at the Cross. These are what Christ bought in His sacrificial death for sinners! We are told that Christ “gave Himself” in order to redeem and purify a people zealous for good works. In other words, our redemption, sanctification and even our zeal-ification were all purchased in the Cross!

1. Purchased holiness

Titus 2 seems to parallel Ephesians 5:25-26, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” Here is Christ purifying His Bride (the Church). This model for husbands in the spiritual leadership of their wives shows that our sanctification is not merely the fruit of hard work. Our sanctification is the fruit of Christ’s direct work.

Puritan John Owen recognized a pattern in the NT picture of sanctification, that our washing/sanctification is through blood (Heb. 9:13-14; 1 John 1:7; Rev. 1:5). Not only at the beginning of the Christian life and in justification does blood cleanse us, but at all points of sanctification Christ’s blood sanctifies us. Which means the Cross is ever at the center of our sanctification.

And so in his commentary on Hebrews 2, Owen attacks those who believe holiness is attained merely by following the moral example of Christ. “And they who place this sanctification merely on the doctrine and example of Christ, besides that they consider not at all the design and scope of the place, so they reject the principal end and the most blessed effect of the death and blood-shedding of the Lord Jesus.”

Christ is certainly our example, but all of our moral purity is (most importantly) the purchase of Christ on the Cross!

I find it interesting that this theme of Christ purchasing our sanctification is not a major one in Owen’s works on mortification and indwelling sin, nor a major theme in Communion with God or the Glory of Christ. The theme does find prominence – of all places – in Owen’s classic defense of definite atonement in The Death of Death.

To show the atonement cannot have been achieved for all sinners, Owen argues the application of the atonement would also be applied to all. “So that our sanctification, with all other effects of free grace, are the immediate procurement of the death of Christ. And of the things that have been spoken this is the sum: Sanctification and holiness is the certain fruit and effect of the death of Christ in all them for whom he died.”

I know some of you will disagree with Owen’s overall argument on limited atonement. What I want you to see instead here is the precious wisdom Owen understands so well — that the work of the atonement reaches far beyond mere redemption and justification. Whoever Christ died for will be sanctified and will be holy because this sanctification and holiness has been purchased at the Cross.

Thus we can say with Paul, Christ is our righteousness and sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30). Christ purchased it all.

2. Purchased zeal-ification

And not only our sanctification and mortification (death to sin), but all of our Christian zeal was also purchased in the Cross!

Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon on Titus 2:14 and his overall point was to reveal that all genuine Christians are zealous people. At the beginning he says, “Zeal is an essential virtue of a Christian. This is evident from the text because in the text it is mentioned as what belongs to the description of a true Christian and part of his distinguishing character. Also because it’s mentioned as a virtue that Christ purchased for all his elect.”

Edwards understood that ministry zeal is not the product of our self-sustained efforts, nor the effect of getting ourselves emotionally pumped up before a sermon, or pep-talking a congregation into service and evangelism. Ultimately, all zeal in the Christian life is purchased at the Cross.

How sad is our tendency to separate the work of Christ on the Cross from our ministry zeal and faithfulness. I know I’m guilty here. Examples of this can be seen in contemporary writings. On 1 Thessalonians 2:19, one author writes:

“This is why, when Paul looks ahead to the future and asks, as well one might, what God will say on the last day, he holds up as his joy and crown, not the merits and death of Jesus, but the churches he has planted who remain faithful to the gospel. The path from initial faith to final resurrection (and resurrection we must remind ourselves, constitutes rescue, that is salvation, from death itself) lies through holy and faithful Spirit-led service, including suffering” (N.T. Wright, Fresh Perspective, 148).

This could not be further from the truth. Paul understood the faithful ministry zeal of churches to be the working out of a zeal Christ purchased at the Cross. The Cross will be forever the centerpiece of glory because without it there would be no ministry zeal, no successful church plants, no faithfulness to the message of the Cross. We must resist the temptation to disconnect the merits of Christ from our ministry zeal.

Without the Cross, there is no zeal.

Conclusions

1. Self-sufficiency abated. This understanding of our mortification, sanctification and zeal-ification protects us from self-sufficiency. Our sufficiency is from God (2 Cor. 3:5). Or to put it another way, our sufficiency is in God’s grace, by His Spirit, and through the work of His Son on the Cross.

2. Confidence engendered. Few things more encourage ministry zeal and the pursuit of sanctification than the knowledge that Christ already purchased these gifts of grace! We have the confidence to pursue and kill sin because we are being washed in His blood. We have the confidence to pray for fervent zeal because it’s a zeal already fully purchased by Christ.

3. Legalism killed. Legalism is seeking to appease God through personal obedience. At its heart is the awful idea that I bring to God something I’ve achieved in my own strength that pleases Him more than His Son. This legalism is killed when we reflect on the Cross of Christ, where He purchased all our holiness and zeal.

It sounds awkward, but the bottom line is that we are simply becoming what’s already been paid for. We should continue praying for holiness, sanctification, victory over indwelling sin, and that God would inflame our passions and zeal. But in these prayers we are merely asking that God would apply, by His Holy Spirit, what Christ has already purchased for us on the Cross.

——————–

Related post: What is Legalism? (a very simple, working definition)

Related post: Cross-centered obedience (how the diligent pursuit of personal obedience presses us into the Cross and comforts our souls)