Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Tilting Truth

A recently released book by Dan Phillips explores how the gospel turned the first-century world upside -down (Acts 17: 6) and how modern evangelicalism too often constructs barriers against its having the same effect today. The World-Tilting Gospel, published by Kregel Publications, is what Phillips refers to as a "whole-Bible" approach to the gospel, beginning not in John 3: 16 (as important as this verse is) but in Genesis 1: 1.

If you've ever visited Phillips' blog or the Pyromaniacs blog where he is one of the team-bloggers, then you probably already know he is an excellent wordsmith with a technical scribal talent that enables the reader to glide through his prose with remarkable facility. In The World-Tilting Gospel, he combines his considerable skill in the mechanics of the written word with a propensity for direct and unambiguous communication, tosses in the occasional proverb and the intermittent dash of wry humor, and sets forth his case for a whole-Bible, world-tilting worldview.

The book has more theology than you likely realize while you're reading it, even a few brief word-studies in Hebrew and Greek, and is instructive, doctrinal, evangelical, exhortative. It ministers to the curious seeker, the new convert, and the mature believer alike. It makes you a little uncomfortable. Sometimes a lot uncomfortable. Lots of the teaching comes straight at you but some of it has a little more nuance (he gets some predestination and unconditional election in there without being overt about it. He even makes a brief but compelling argument that regeneration precedes faith). It is a book that can be handed out as a tool for evangelism or taught chapter-by-chapter in a Bible Study group.

He starts with a definition of who man is and who God is. He exegetes from the first three chapters of Genesis with some insights from this text that you may not have considered before. He defines sin, and expounds on the doctrine of original sin. He sets forth a very complete Christology and detailed straightforward teaching on substitutionary atonement. He explains imputed forensic righteousness and salvation by grace alone through faith alone. He does these things in understandable language, and many readers probably won't realize how much doctrine and theology they're actually getting. He discusses sanctification, and deals effectively with three widespread errors in the Christian growth paradigm-- categories which he labels "Gutless Gracers" (easy-believism), "Crisis Upgraders"("carnal" vs. "spiritual" Christians) and "Muzzy Mysticism" (Inward rest/victorious walk). He provides one of the better definitions of the "flesh" I recall seeing, even in more formal works.

He talks about Gospel obedience, and exhorts the believer to "get on with" living and telling it. He doesn't attempt to finesse or sidestep on key doctrinal issues, and this will no doubt disturb the postmodern crowd. He takes a world-tilting approach to a world-tilting subject.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Out of Perspective

In the previous three posts I have discussed the issue of legalism in response to an article by Timothy Gombis in Christianity Today titled, "The Paul We Think We Know." Gombis endorses a New Perspectives view that seeks to minimize the pervasiveness of legalism in first-century Judaism and reinterpret Biblical passages that are clearly dealing with the issue of legalism.

Because of this effort to downplay the effect of the erroneous view that one could establish a works-based righteousness by works of the law, Gombis asserts, "First-century Judaism didn't have a legalism problem; it had an ethnocentrism problem." Gombis holds that Jewish believers in Paul's day wanted to convert Gentiles professing faith in Christ to Judaism because they viewed Christianity as being inherently Jewish. Thus, Gombis refers to Romans 3: 20, which says,

"because by the works of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight;for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin." (NASB)
This, says Gombis, is not to refute Jewish legalism, but refers to the fact that "God does not justify a person merely because he is ethnically Jewish." If this is his New Perspective on Romans 3: 20 then he needs a New New Perspective. Paul does often address the fact that the gospel is offered to both Jews and Gentiles, but in Romans 3: 20 he is making two points:

1) By the works of the law (Greek: ergown nomou) no flesh (sarch) will be justified, or declared righteous, before God;

2) through the law is the real knowledge (epignowsis) of sin.

The first point establishes that no human will be judged righteous because he earned his righteousness by keeping the law. It is a clear repudiation of legalism. The second point clarifies that, rather than having the achievement of a meritorious righteousness as its goal, the purpose of the law is to reveal to the sinner his sinful condition. This too refutes the legalistic notion that the purpose of the law is to earn a righteous standing. In Romans 3: 20 Paul emphasizes that the law does not justify and the law is not intended to justify, but rather to reveal sin. In Romans 3: 21-28 Paul explains that justification is a gift, by grace through faith, concluding in verse 28,

"For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works ofthe Law." (NASB)
The idea that Paul is not making a carefully developed case against legalism, or the false notion of works-based righteousness, cannot be sustained by a close reading of the text. The apostle makes very clear in the first three chapters of Romans the manifold ways both Jews and Gentiles have transgressed the Law, concluding in Romans 3: 9-19 that all humanity is under sin, then begins in Romans 3:21 and following to explain that righteousness is not earned but is a gift through faith in Jesus Christ. Note the summary of his case in verses 23-24 of Romans 3 (NASB):

"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;".
It is, no doubt, a direct doctrinal challenge for the legalists of Paul's day and also through the centuries since. We should be careful not to detract from Paul's clear teaching about the righteousness of Christ credited to the believer by grace through faith. In declaring the believer righteous, God did what the law could not do. That is the truth Paul preached.