Friday, July 14, 2017

Culture Shock, continued

A while ago a brother in our church suggested that "Women in Office" was a real "hobby horse" for me. He came to this conclusion after I had published a few articles on our church's Facebook page.
I had done so in response to two developments. First, the GKv churches were meeting at their regular synod, and this time there seemed to be an urgent push in the church community to 'legalize women in office'. Reading the Nederlands Daglad and listening to people around me I was convinced that this decision would indeed be made. Second, while our pastor can be characterised as "evangelical reformed" and loves to learn from John Piper and Timothy Keller, yet het held a 'teaching sermon' in which he explained the report on "Serving Together as Man and Woman" (written by a study group to advise the Synod on this issue) without any pastoral warning or guidance. Yet, I discovered -to my surprise and horror- that this report follows the same rationale as Bill Webb does in his progressive redemptive hermeneutic. (see: post Shelob's Web: August, 2014)

Meanwhile, fairly recently I had learned that at 'my seminary' and in the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist churches the teachings of Bill Webb have been rejected. Wayne Grudem, for instance, has written a fairly thorough critique of Webb's "Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals".
On the other hand, however, in the churches where I grew up in Holland, many or most now embrace the kind of hermeneutics of Bill Webb proposes. Ironically, they used to consider themselves 'the true church' with 'the pure doctrine', while they considered Baptist churches unworthy of the label "Church of Christ". Yet, at this time it seems to me that Baptist leaders like D.A. Carson and John Piper are now closer to the Truth than most Reformed churches and their leaders, at least here in The Netherlands.

So, what is my position on "women in office' and how and why is it different from others in 'our churches' here?
Since most people tend to think that there are only two answers possible, they will automatically try to peg me in either hole. So, before I answer the question, I usually describe the other options before us.  Please note that many nuances exist and variations exist within each of these viewpoints.

1 the traditional position
In several passages, Paul clearly argues that women must be silent in the meetings. Even if we cannot understand his rationale or have a tendency to object from our cultural perspective, we are called to obey the Word of God and the apostolic teaching.
Sure, women were prophesying in the early church, but we don't have this kind of prophesying anymore. Perhaps women were allowed to be deacons, but many older people would object, to this and we are to keep the peace. Besides, this could lead us onto a slippery slope, whereby opening up one office might soon lead to opening up all offices. Better safe than sorry.

My response: Over against the "women must be silent" in the meetings we can also find passages where women were encouraged to speak in the meetings, and they were applauded for their leadership functions. If we bar women from the office of deacon without clear instructions from Scripture to do so, then we are not living by God's Word but by tradition and culture. We do not respect our women and the gifts God gives in and through them. Such practices do not build up but weaken the church.

2 the egalitarian position
A century ago the women in our culture were not treated with the same respect as men. In civil elections, for instance, women were not allowed to participate. Especially after WWII feminism fought for liberty and equality, and slowly but surely many situations of systemic injustice were removed.
Although the Church of Christ ought to defend justice in the public realm, in reality they often lag behind the surrounding culture. Today, most churches are ashamed of their chauvinistic past and seek to undo the mistakes of the past.
If women finally get their fair place and position in society, why should we not do the right thing and do the same in the churches? If we read the Bible from this perspective, it becomes clear that there is a movement after the Fall from inequality and injustice to justice and equality. We are called to continue in faithfulness to this storyline and do the right thing for our women.
If there are a few passages where Paul would call women to be silent, we must look for good reasons for him to do so. In Corinth, for instance, there were special problems with domineering women. Therefore, Paul's instruction there was specifically directed to that situation. Besides, Paul was careful in his day and age not to run ahead and enforce changes the congregations were not ready for.

My response: In the writing of most proponents it is clear that they are searching for scriptural approval, or at least leaway, for what they -informed by the surrounding secular culture- deem to be the right tyhing for God's Word to say. Just like the traditionalists, ultimately they let culture and tradition determine what is right of wrong for them to do. The Bible passages that support their conclusions are then highlighted, the others, apparently opposite, are then relativized. Now Synod has decided all offices should be open, many people again argue that we ought to maintain the (new) status quo in order to maintain the peace.

3 the relativistic position
Some people cannot understand me. In China we could worship together with Catholis, Pentecostals, and Baptists. Now we are back in Holland, we make issue about "such trivial matters" as women in office. Many preople argue that, really, we should have no separate denominations: Do not all Christians share in the same faith and baptism? Are all these schisms not an abomiation for the Truth? Look, even in our churches there are many people sincerely trying to understand God's Word and to live by it. And they come to all kinds of interpretations and applications. So, God's Word is not clear at all. We must not be so proud as in the past, and we must stop fighting for our viewpoint as if that were the only valid one. Let's live in harmonious love together and stop fighting!

My response: We must indeed watch out not to judge others or other churches too easily as 'unbeliever' or 'false church'. We must be prepared to listen before we speak, to evaluate our views in the light of Scripture, also from other perspectives. We must always try to maintain a balance between apparently contradicting passages in Scripture. Yet, it seems that many people and leaders here have moved into a view of relativism. Although in Paul's letters (for instance to Timothy) and Jesus' letters (to 'the seven churches') warn us all the time against false doctrines, this concern seems of little importance for the modern church today. Satan will make use of his opportunities that readily come available today!

4 the complementarian position
Most orthodox scholars today agree that in the first letter to Corinth (chapter 14) Paul tells women (not just certain women!) to be silent when it comes to evaluate what has been said to the (male or female) speakers in the church meetings. In his letter to Timothy Paul warns that women are not to speak authoritatively. To summarize: the final authority and responsibility for the teaching must be with the elders or bishops, who ought to be ordained men. We must ensure that all other roles in the church are readily available to women as to men.
In our modern culture people cannot understand that men and women are equally valuable before God while at the same time they have different roles to play. They also think it sounds terrible that a woman are called to follow, serve, and obey her husband. Yet, they fail to see that the husband is called to love his wife sacrificially, like Christ loved his church when he gave up his life for her! if a godly man will sacrifice everything for his wife, he cannot and will not enforce his will on her against her will. Yet, if she experiences his real, self-sacrificing love in this way, she will love to serve him and to follow him! This must not surprise us: Paul and James call thenselves slaves of Jesus, not because their Lord is a cruel slavedriver, but because they have understood and appreciated his amazing grace. They trust him so much, that -in loving thankfulness- they voluntarily become his slaves!

This view, in my opinion, is the only one that seeks to do justice to passages on both sides of the spectrum: those passages that seem to say: 'Women may speak and lead in public, just like men.' and others that seem to say: 'Women must be silent, while men may speak.' Also, it avoids the problems of traditionalism and egalitarianism that drives people to force their personal preferences on their exegesis and/or hermeneutics. In this way, it also avoids ineffectivity in missions, as Newbigin and Keller would say, "Traditional churches do not listen to, dialog with, or understand those outside the faith. Yet, mainstream churches, in their efforts to accomdate secular culture, have lost the unique message of the Gospel, which is both inviting and confronting."

Of course my description of the views had to be short. The complementarian view has been promoted by D.A. Carson, Tim and Kathy Keller, and John Piper. These are the leaders of The Gospel Coalition. To gain a better understanding, and I hope appreciation of this view, I encourage you to read some of these publications:

Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womenhood

What's the Difference?

50 Questions and Answers

Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles

The Gospel Coalition on Complentarity: search their website, using as search term: complementarity

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Culture Shock

It was almost two years ago that we (temporarily, at least) remigrated to the Netherlands. We left as young family with two little children in 1983, and now we're back again... even in my home town.

In the meantime we have learned by experience a number of essential things.
First, the global church of Christ is much wider than one particular denomination, and there is not one denomination which can lay claim on the perfect truth. Therefore, I have not apriori rejected or condemned Christians from other denominations; rather I have learned from them.
Second, in this process I learned to look at biblical teachings and denominational doctrines from multiple perspectives. This is how I could also identify wrong teachings in "our" churches in Canada.
However, in this process I also discovered some serious abberations from the biblical truth in other churches and cultures. (In other words, I have not drifted from an ecclesiastical ethnocentrism to a doctrinal relativism.)
In these blog posts I have discussed a number of these dangerous movements and trends, such as: a shift in hermeneutical methods whereby our cultural mindset of today is used as a governing template for reading and applying the Scripture (Shelob's Web: August 20, 2014) and for instance: how Satan manages to infiltrate the evangelical churches with New Age beliefs and practices. (The Last Battle, and Beauty and the Beast: January, 2015).
In China we worked well with Christians from Jewish, Roman Catholic, Baptist and Pentecostal backgrounds and not because we watered down the truth; in fact in my preaching and teaching I always tried to learn from them and to respectfully show the differences and explain why some of these really mattered.

After eight years of service there, we had a real sense that God wanted us to wrap up our work in China and to move to The Netherlands. My parents had experienced some medical crises and my mother was beginning to struggle with dementia, which in turn made life for my father rather stressful. This sense of calling was further confirmed in events such as government intervention with our (officially illegal) ministry and the fact that I was offered a job (even though I had no residence or workpermit yet) in a town close to the place my parents lived. The job was at a "Christian" school, but outside the fact that I had a few sincerely Christian colleagues, there was nothing visibly Christian about it. The 'devotional material ' we were to use was clearly humanistic, pluralistic, and at times vaguely spiritual. The Gospel (that is: the reality of our sinfulness and the only redemption through faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ) was carefully cut out from the religious messages which tried to ensure that (the teachings of) all religions would be equally respected.

For various (mysterious) reasons my contract was not renewed, so I had to look for another job. In the meantime we had felt led to join a GKv (Liberated Reformed Church) with evangelical tendencies. The new pastor was a 'follower' of John Piper and Tim Keller, so we were very hopeful that this was indeed the place for us to be.
Well, as it happened, the Reformed Junior High School in my home town (where my father had been one of the first two teachers when it was instituted) had a vacancy in my subject areas that year, so I found a new job, much closer to home. An (official) condition for employment was that I'd be a member of a GKv church, but that was no problem anymore. I am now finishing up my first year at this school, and I have enjoyed a very good year. I am looking forward to another good year with wonderful colleagues and students!

Now, as we started to get absorbed into the GKv community and culture, we began to experience a 'culture shock'. I will share two events here, and in the next post I will address a third issue.

1 Undoing the Reformation
2 No Need for Missions
3 From Traditionalism to Feminism and Postmodernity

1 Undoing the Reformation
The same week that I was to start my teaching job at the Reformed Junior High School I also had a start a seven-week track of daily (5 times/week) radiation sessions to combat the prostate cancer which had been found in me. As a result I had to miss a multi-day spiritual retreat with the staff. The school leaders had registered this retreat with a Roman Catholic monastry (Dominican monastery at Huissen).
At first I was not too overly apprehensive. We had come to know evangelical Christians from a RC background, and we had found that with them we had a common base of faith on which we could work well together. Note that we never shunned the discussion about important differences. (Report from China: the catholic connection: July, 2015)
When I got to read more detailed information about the place and the program some alarmbells started to go off.
First, the monastery and chapel are dedicated to Maria, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary. In China we had made it a point not to tour the pagan temples. But, was this not another temple, dedicated to another non-god? Okay, it would not have stopped me from joining the colleagues, but I became somewhat reluctant.
Second, we would be invited to join the local monks at the Eucharist. Now, this became more serious. I had to be "Reformed", and in the "Reformed confessions" it states that the Popish Mass is an accursed idolatry. In the past I did object to such strong, condemning language, but in China I learned to draw a clear line between Worship of the Living God and Idolatry. So, as I sat down with a cup of coffee in the staffroom, I challenged my beloved colleagues, "Who will participate in the accursed idolatry of the Popish Mass?" Nobody had discussed this; the leadership thought it was a good thing, and they assumed we would readily agree to it. Well, most of them saw no problem. I asked them, "Do they not bow before the 'bread' and worship it as if it were their God?" The response was, "Well, we don't have to agree on all the aspects of their doctrine; it would still be wonderful to celebrate the union of our faith!" I was not impressed. When I brought up this concern with the leadership, they responded: "Why, Roman Catholics are Christians, too! Is it not wonderful to celebrate our union in Christ?
Third, as part of the program there was a workshop on meditation, as I found out later. I questioned several colleagues about this: "What kind of meditation was it? Was it meditating on the Word of God? Or was it emptying our minds to become receptive for spiritual oneness?" They agreed that it had nothing to do with the Bible. Now I got very concerned. The Bible urges us to put on God's full armor in the battle against the forces of darkness, and our Christian leaders tell us to shed all armor to open up to whatever spirits? Anybody, who -like Paul- takes the raging spiritual battle very serious would freak out about such developments in the church!
This year is the 500 year anniversary of Luther's protest against the corruption in the Roman (Catholic) Church(es). The Nederlands Dagblad newspaper is still read by many GKv members as it used to be a leader in the doctrine of the church. Today the paper sees little reason for celebrating the Reformation. According to many contributions, we must no longer see the Reformation as God's way of preserving the truth among a righteous remnant; rather, it was an unholy breaking-up of what God had put together!

2 No Need for Mission
Since the day that we met two Chinese women at the (GKv) church have we not only joined that church but we have also been active in assisting those who seek to settle in this land as refugees. A number of programs were in place already, some of which are organized by an interdenominational team of women. One of their programs is to assist (annabe) refugee women in the learning of the Dutch language. Marioka (my wife) was quite involved with this and other programs.
A few months ago she asked me (several times, I must admit) if I could not start such a program for the men. One of my colleagues at school had also shown interest in helping out. Since we had done similar courses for ESL (English as a second language) in Canada and China, I thought, "Big deal! Let's go!"
We already knew a group of men, who received biweekly Bible instruction at another GKv church in town, and they were quite interested in language help. So, we had teachers and students, but we still needed a building. The church building (of the other GKv congregation) seemed to be a natural, but the person-in-charge insisted we do this through the proper channels so that the church would not have to pay for extra heating costs and such. Apparently, an interdenominational fund existed to which various churches donated to share the expenses. Well, I was not used to such an overly structured way of helping others. First I contemplated bearing the cost myself and then deducting it from my monthly church contribution. But another option was suggested. There was a PKN church (building) nearby, and they had very good facilities for this work. Besides, they already worked closely together with the GKv church in search of greater unity. So, I approached their pastor and another elder. A few weeks later, I received a reply, asking, "Who are you? and, With what organization do you work?" I replied something like, "We are born-again believers, who seek to show the love of Christ in helping the stranger and the sojourner among us. We need no organization to do the will of God." A couple of weeks later I received a letter of response. There were two practical concerns, especially about the income of their caretaker and the supervision of their facilities during our presence. But, these were followed by a policy-objection. "Church council does not support Bible study for non-Christians. Especially Muslems experience threats and exlusion when they associate with Christians. Therefore it is not right to isolate such people from their own people and faith as their future is already one of uncertainty."
Wow! This response at least suggests that these church leaders do not think they ought to present the Gospel to Muslems, and that their troubles here should be of greater concern than the judgment of God that might well await them later, and that our greatest expression of love is not to teach them about salvation through the sacrifice of Christ. To me this suggests that they fail to see or accept the essence of the Gospel! And 'our' church sees no obstacle to work on closer unity with them!? Scary!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The End of Pillarization

Most middle-aged Dutch people are somewhat ashamed of the post-war years (fifties and sixties) when Dutch society was strictly compartmentalized. The identity of Dutch citizens was marked by the “pillars” to which they belonged, and the majority of the association and commitment to such a pillar was still based on choices of parents and grandparents. The major pillars were Reformed, Roman Catholic, Socialist/communist, and Liberal. The Reformed pillar was actually divided up in several sub-pillars, which were also quite separated from each other. Typically, people within each pillar had their own political parties, broadcast stations, societies, schools and universities, hospitals, etc. So, Catholic folk associated with other Catholics, shared Catholic viewpoints, maintained Catholic traditions and  propagated Catholic beliefs, traditions, and habits through the generations.

This pattern of pillarization, or strict compartmentalization of society, is mostly broken down today. It is far less predictable which newspapers people will read, TV programs they watch, or political parties they vote for. There is far less group-commitment and far more emphasis on the virtue of personal freedom of choice. How did that change?

First, it became much more likely that people learned more about “other folk” from other pillars, countries, and cultures. access to diverse TV programs, the immigration of Moslems, the increase of holidays abroad, and the higher levels of education contributed to a much broader spectrum of exposure. Typically, when we get more exposure to a greater variety of cultures, we tend to become less chauvinistic about our customs and beliefs and more open to other ideas and viewpoints.
In the geographic sector there was a shift from an agricultural to an industrial, and then to a service sector dominated economy. These shifts generally came with a centralization of jobs and a net population migration to urban areas and cities. In these areas people found a greater diversity of thoughts and ideas and furthermore a decrease in community-living and peer-pressure.

These shifts certainly had an impact on trends in religious adherence. The character of churches changed dramatically, and most of them became less dogmatic, less confessional, less strict in teaching and in discipline. Especially in the more urban areas church attendance, membership, commitment, and participation dropped dramatically. Part of this is good, I believe. Traditional church with a strong peer pressure tend to produce man-pleasers and people who follow the rules to be accepted by their social group- and those are not marks of Christians. Typically, when the majority suddenly switches thoughts about what is acceptable or appropriate, or find out that many people just followed the party-line, the character of the group can quickly and dramatically change. 

When we visited an international church plantin Beijing, a young fellow said he was impressed by the contribution of the Netherlands to the church of God. When I looked puzzled, he referred to the Synod of Dordrecht, held in 1618, 1619. I told him that things had changed a lot over four hundred years. Things have changed, especially during the last fifty years! After 32 years we live here again, and it’s quite a different place! The church is under attack and many don’t seem to notice it.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Back to the Future... Living in The Netherlands

After eight years in China, about which I have just entered a relatively small number of posts, we moved in the summer of 2015 to The Netherlands.
The first reason was that we felt God sent us there for a number of years to support my aging parents.
That is also the reason for us settling in my hometown, Drachten.
Drachten is a relatively new town (established after 1640, when under the direction of one of my ancestors, Mr. Bolleman dug a canal to facilitate the digging of peat in the area. Drachten is a significant centre of Christianity. While there are about 45,000 residents, we find quite a few, relatively large churches of Reformed background and "De Bethel", a Free Baptist megachurch.

I was blessed to get a teaching job in the area, even when we still lived in China. That was at a "Christian" school in a nearby town. Since I was not rehired for a second year, I had to find another job, which I got at a Christian school in Drachten, which originally was established as a parentally organized school for Reformed Christians (Liberated).

I have started a website, to share my theological views and concerns in the Dutch language. I also translated Stephen Westerholm's "Justification Reconsidered", and later I found a Christian publisher willing to publish this book in the Dutch language.

If I have the time I hope to share some of our experiences of living in the old country, where church and society have changed so much. Yet, we also have changed, and so -it seems- we have a somewhat different perspective on the current developments as those around us. What's new?

Drachten, May 2017

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Covenant and Justification

Especially since E.P. Sanders published his book “Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of religion” (Philadelphia, 1977), some theologians insist that (all) the first-century Jews held to a theology called ‘covenantal nomism’. 
Earlier many churches and theologians believed that first-Century Jews held to some form of legalism as if they could (by doing righteous deeds) contribute to their own salvation.  Sanders, however, argued that this constituted a misunderstanding of Paul’s letters and a caricature of Jewish thought as if it constituted a form of legalism (whereby justification does not come by grace but by human efforts). 

“Covenantal nomism”, according to Sanders, includes the following points:
·       God has graciously chosen a people to make a covenant with them, and He has given them his law.
·       God has promised to maintain this covenant, and He requires of them a response in obedience.
·       God rewards obedience, and He punishes willful transgression.
·       Through atonement God provides a means to forgive sins committed, thereby maintaining the covenant relationship in spite of sins committed.
·       All who are maintained in the covenant through obedience, atonement, and God’s mercy will be saved in the end.

In the final analysis the impression is given that the Christian view is not so different from the view of the Jews in the time that Paul wrote his letters.  Although we were first chosen by grace, we still need to show obedience in order to continue in the covenant. Nobody can perfectly keep the obligations of the covenant, but such shortcomings are graciously forgiven by the mercy of our covenant God.
This reasoning, then, gives the impression that we are first unconditionally accepted and justified by God, while at the last judgment our works (of obedience) will be taken into consideration for our final justification.

To many Christians, this seems to be quite in line with the thinking of most Christians!  In fact, it seems to be an attractive way of explaining what must happen if we stress our covenant heritage without creating the false impression that every one who (in baptism) receives God’s (unconditional) promises will be saved regardless of their later lifestyle. It appeared attractive to me when I wrestled with these issues in the nineties, and apparently it seemed attractive to a number of reformed leaders at the time, such as Steve Schlissel, Norm Shepherd, and John Barach.  Tom Wright, who used to be well known for his rigorous academics and staunch orthodoxy, holds to similar ideas.

When I talked this over with my wife, we agreed that we used to think along very similar lines. God has graciously saved us (essentially by allowing us to be born into a Christian community). As lambs of the Good Shepherd, we were justified by the love of God and the sacrifice of Christ.  And then, as we got older it was our obligation to live within the covenant. We were to live like good Christian folk, faithfully attending the church services, refrain from gambling, stealing, drunkenness, and shopping on Sundays.  Of course, we knew that we could never perfectly please God, and the good things we did we could only do by the grace of God.  Yet, God would remain faithful to his covenant promises, so if we would continue living by the basic rules of our church culture and say daily “sorry” for our sins, then we could rest assured that we could count on God’s forgiveness that He secured for us on Golgotha.
Perhaps this was not the official theology of our church, but it seems to have been some a popular folk-theology for the people in the pews.
We knew that “all people are wretched sinners in the face of a Holy God” and we learned about “total depravity”, but these were mantras that had not effectively changed our personal convictions that we (as faithful members of a true church) held at the time. Or, they were only true for those outside the covenant of grace.  So, if someone would confront us with a sin, we would not hesitate to defend ourselves and to deny our state of sinfulness, which we were supposed to embrace.

If nothing else, this should make the topic relevant for us today!  What, if anything, is wrong with this theological theory? If it is the right approach, and if this was held by (all) first-Century Jews, what then was Paul’s problem?  Are Jews so different in their beliefs from Christians, or are Catholics (in their theologizing) so different from the Reformed?

Here are a few important considerations:

1               First-Century Jews had a different concept of sin and grace than Paul.

Don Carson challenges Sanders’ claim that first-Century Jews all adhere to covenantal nomism.                 Looking at the writings of Flavius Josephus, a well-known first-Century Jewish author, he examined all the instances where Josephus used the word  χαρις” (grace).  Josephus acknowledges that God pours out his grace… yet not on undeserving sinners but on those who try to follow the law.[1]  Westerholm points out that the Jewish thought claimed that “Israel’s willingness to obey (God) made them worthy recipients of what was nonetheless a divine gift, out of all proportion to their merits”[2]  So, when first-Century Jews, like Josephus, wrote about people being saved by grace, they meant something quite different from Paul’s teachings.  Paul insists that there are no worthy recipients of God’s grace, so God’s gift of salvation cannot include any role of humans doing “God-pleasing works”.[3]  Sanders agrees that “a concept of original or even universal sin is missing in most forms of Judaism.”[4]

So, first-Century Jews seem to have had a much less serious view of their own sinfulness and consequently a much weaker view of God’s grace. Consequently, they could not imagine the desperate need for a divine substitute, offered in the crucifixion of the Messiah.

2               Jewish history (in the biblical record) would suggest that Israel was not “a worthy recipient of God’s grace”.  Reading the record of the Old Testament, or the summary in Stephen’s speech, it is impossible to see Israel as “worthy recipient of God’s grace”.  Throughout history humans have tried hard to destroy what God had built, and at best there have been short periods of blessed harmony with God and at best there has been a “small, righteous remnant”.  Yet, if we were to quickly respond that this must be where we fit in, then –in our self-righteous pride- we still miss the point! Paul’s insisted that there is nobody who does good, and (keeping) the law can only condemn somebody, for nobody can perfectly keep it. 

3               Paul challenges contemporary Jews in their (partial) reliance on their own works of obedience. He will have nothing of combining human’s good attitudes and efforts with the grace of God. Even for Christians (who have God’s indwelling Spirit) there can be no credit whatsoever for their good deeds. Paul makes it very clear, what the Reformers later affirmed, that our only credit comes from Christ’s sacrifice and that we can only receive its benefits through living faith. Those who were truly predestined and justified will produce fruit of faith- not as condition for their final justification but as proof of true faith and justification.
As maturing Christians realize, even our best efforts are affected by efforts to please others and to get public support or praise. Most things we do are done to boost our image and status; our comfort and our confidence are at best secondary objectives.  We will not be able to have God squarely and always at the center of our lives!

4               The views of Tom Wright are more complicated as he also insists on “Jesus as the one who ends the exile status for the Jews.” Although this is an important aspect, Wright insists that this is the dominating perspective for Paul, whereby Christ redeemed the children of Abraham and where Paul’s (primary) concern was how the gentile believers could be incorporated into this covenant community of the redeemed.  He then redefines the term ‘justification’ as “God’s declaration that we are in that covenant.” 
As Piper[5] paraphrases Wright, “The gospel is the message of … the death and resurrection and lord- ship of Christ over the world. The Holy Spirit uses this news to awaken faith in the heart. This is God’s divine call through the gospel. By this (effectual!) call and faith, we are made partakers of Christ’s victory and become part of God’s family. Then … justification comes in and declares to us what has happened to us. It thus gives assurance—but does not save, or convert, or make us part of God’s family.”
This is how Wright describes the process as Paul sees it: Calling, faith, and justification come to the elect almost simultaneously, yet in that order. This invites all kinds of questions and concerns. Does Wright not confuse covenant with election? Are not all in baptism told that they belong to the covenant community? Yet, how does this come after true faith exists, which will not even be the case in all who are in the covenant.  When Peter on Pentecost declares that “The promise is for you (Jews) and to all (gentiles) who will still be called”, does he not pronounce that his audience is in the covenant- prior to their actual conversion and faith?
One problem is that men like Tom Wright are very academic and very clever, and most people would feel intimidated even attempting to contradict his genius. Most critics of Wright point out that he uses dikaioo (the Greek term for justification) in a very unnatural way.  Is it not God’s declaration that we are reconciled to Him the crucial aspect of our salvation? How then could it be a message of assurance only, after the fact of (effective) calling and the existence of true faith?
 Like other followers of Sanders, Wright distinguishes between this (first) justification and a later justification. In Piper’s[6] words, It seems that, even though Wright says dikaioo is ‘a declarative word, declaring that something is the case’, rather than a word for making something happen or changing the way something is,”21 nevertheless, he wants to clarify that God’s future act of justification is more than a declaration ‘that something is the case.’ It is an event that accomplishes final deliverance.”  In Piper’s[7] words, “In the future at the final court scene, God the Judge will find in our favor on the basis of the works we have done—the life we have lived—and in the present he anticipates that verdict and declares it to be already true on the basis of our faith in Jesus.”
Both Carson and Piper carefully examine Romans 2, 3 in their evaluation of Wright’s theories. This is then how John Piper[8] gives his view:
“I believe in the necessity of a transformed life of obedience to Jesus by the power of the Spirit through faith as a public evidence and confirmation of faith at the Last Day for all who will finally be saved. In other words, I believe it is actually true, not just hypothetically true, that God “will render to each one according to his works to those who by patience in well- doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life”(Rom.2:6–7). I take the phrase “according to”(kata) in a sense different from “based on.” I think the best way to bring together the various threads of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith apart from works (Rom. 3:28; 4:4–6; 11:6; Eph. 2:8) is to treat the necessity of obedience not as any part of the basis of our justification, but strictly as the evidence and confirmation of our faith in Christ whose blood and righteousness is the sole basis of our justification. How this is the case, while justification is by faith alone apart from any basis in that very obedience, has been one of the main themes of my preaching and writing for the last thirty years.”
I thank God for gifted godly men, who have studied these complicated issues in great depth and found the suggested solutions wanting. I have benefited most from the teachings and writings of Don Carson, John Piper, and Stephen Westerholm.  While some leaders in reformed churches have embraced this new view of covenant and justification, it is amazing that Baptist scholars (who, according to some reformed leaders are by their affiliation by definition Arminian) are among the leading theologians to preserve the Reformed doctrine of grace.

Resources used:

·       D.A. Carson, “The New Perspective on Paul”, a series of three lectures, free downloads on i-tunes.
·       John Piper, “The future of justification, a response to N.T. Wright” (Crossway Books, 2007). (available as pdf file on the Desiring God website)
·       Stephen Westerholm, “Justification by faith is the answer. What is the question?”, CTQ 70 (2006):197-217 (available as pdf file on the Internet)
·       Stephen Westerholm, “Justification Reconsidered: rethinking a Pauline theme” (Eerdmans, 2013)

For further study:
·       Douglas J. Moo, “The Epistle to the Romans”, NICNT commentary. Eerdmans, 1996
·       D.A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid, editors: “Justification and Variegated Nomism”, Volume 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, Volume 2: The Paradoxes of Paul

[1] D.A. Carson, “The New Perspective on Paul”, a series of three lectures, free downloads on i-tunes.
[2] Stephen Westerholm, “Justification Reconsidered: rethinking a Pauline theme”, page 32.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., page 33.
[5] John Piper, “The future of justification, a response to N.T. Wright”, chapter 6: Justification and the Gospel: Does justification determine our standing with God?
[6] John Piper, “The future of justification, a response to N.T. Wright”, page 100
[7] John Piper, “The future of justification, a response to N.T. Wright”, chapter 7: The place of works in our justification.
[8] John Piper, “The future of justification, a response to N.T. Wright”, page 110

Covenant and election

Before writing on 'the new perspective on Paul and his view of justification', it seemed good to me to look at two important perspectives from which we can view and describe the process of salvation.

In the Word, God reveals himself to his covenant community. He sets them apart from ‘the world’, and He reveals to them his power and his love. He promises them his blessings, as He seeks to build them into his Kingdom, his Royal Priesthood.  Although these promises are unconditional for the covenant community as a whole, yet for every (mature) member of it, there is an obligation to obey God and to trust in him- in fact to effectively put God at the very center of their lives.  For those who (used to) belong to this covenant community, yet persistently refuse to walk with God, there will not be a blessed destiny; they will certainly not inherit the Kingdom of God.

From eternity God has made his plans, and the fact that He is (and remains) the Sovereign Lord of all must imply that God is in full control of all events.  Although it is hard for the human mind to embrace simultaneously God’s Sovereignty (full control of all aspects of history) and the reality of human responsibility (obligation, implying true choices), yet the Bible teaches both and we will end up in trouble if we dismiss one of these realities in our efforts to secure the other.  Therefore, we must acknowledge that God has predestined some of humankind to receive and to embrace the Good News after a real sense of their personal sin and guilt before Holy God.  These people can only come to this realization through the regenerating work of God, the Spirit.  Having seen their total inadequacy for any saving (read: God-pleasing) good works, the regenerated person embraces Christ as Savior and consequently he/she is transformed by the (indwelling) Spirit in all their walk and talk.  In their transformed lives they demonstrate that they truly are disciples of Christ, the Son of God.

The form for (infant) baptism in the reformed churches is stated in terms of the covenant, as it lists first God’s promises and then the believer’s obligations.  God gives his amazing promises to the church, and so everyone in it (hearing his Word and experiencing his power and love) is called to walk with God in faithfulness and growing godliness.  Those who (in later life) refuse to do so will not forfeit the covenant blessing.

If we –in our desire to have assurance and comfort for ourselves and for our children- confuse covenant and election, we build a false theology, which leads to a false assurance.  If we confuse God’s grace, received by all who are baptized, with the irresistible grace (as described in the Canons of Dort), and if we assume that all members in the (reformed) church are saints, who therefore will persevere in true faith, producing fruit, then we build a church on the wrong foundation.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Errors of Hyper-Calvinism

Over and against these four important convictions, I want to briefly respond to four teachings that I have encountered in traditional reformed churches, usually in their zeal to combat Arminianism. By trying to avoid the dangers of Arminianism, which lacks in the appreciation of God’s Sovereignty (His full control over everything that happens), these views fall into the opposite error in failing to recognize that humans have responsibility (and therefore the possibility) to make their own choices. 

1 “Faith and sanctification are not the actions of regenerated people. Since they are gifts of God, they cannot be the work of humans.”
I have had to argue against this teaching in churches of various traditional reformed churches. I believe this to be wrong, for throughout Scripture God’s Sovereign rule does not remove or reduce human responsibility. When faith and sanctification are lacking, the fault lies with humans, yet where they do exist the credit goes to God.
It is true that humans, without the work of the Holy Spirit, refuse to acknowledge their state of spiritual death and refuse to seek and follow God. Yet, through the work of the Spirit many are changed so that they begin to see who they are in light of God’s holiness and consequently embrace the Gospel.

In our science book, in the chapter on magnetism, the problem was stated: If you have two similar bars of metal, and one is a magnet, while the other is just a bar of iron, how can you tell which one is the magnet?*
This gave me the following (limited) illustration. Picture God as powerful magnet, and the human as a simple bar of iron. By itself the iron would not attract the magnet. Yet, you observe that they in fact attract each other. How is it possible? The domain theory states that the magnet produces a magnetic field. Under the influence of this field the particles inside the iron begin to line up with the magnet, so that it begins to act like a weak magnet. Transformed in this way, the iron bar now is able to respond to the magnet’s attraction by attracting the magnet.
Left to our own human nature, we would neither seek God nor would we want His presence in our lives. Yet, when we come under the impact of the powerful work of His Word and Spirit we begin to change. We are quickened: a spiritual life begins to grow in us so that we begin to seek God and to yearn for His presence.

2 “All those who are baptized (in a genuine church), have received irresistible grace. God’s promises in baptism are unconditional.”
This was taught by our pastor when I was accused of heresy.  In fear of Arminianism, even a theology professor insisted that God’s promises in baptism are unconditional (for the infants of believers).  Yet, the sacraments are for the (true) believers; by faith we must appropriate God’s gifts; otherwise we will not (in the end) benefit from them. Rather, for those who despise God’s promises, the covenant becomes a curse. Irresistible grace is true when we consider God’s work in “the elect”, who were foreordained for salvation.
In Egypt, all of Israel received God’s promise of dwelling in a “and of milk and honey”, yet most of them refused to follow God in trust and obedience; many wanted to return to Egypt.

3 “All gracious gifts of God and work of the Holy Spirit are only promised and given to the elect.”
I have had to argue against this teaching when I met with people from, or influenced by, the Protestant reformed churches.  Yet, where the Bible teaches us about people “always resisting the Holy Spirit” and “the sin against the Holy Spirit”, it shows us that certain workings of God’s Spirit have been and are actually resisted, and therefore such workings are not restricted to the elect.
If God’s grace (I am not writing “saving grace”!) is only for the elect, then there are no promises for all who hear the Gospel, and the “Gospel” is only “Good News” for those who happen to be elect.

“How we live as Christians has no bearing on our salvation.”
Again, in our home church this actually was a prevalent view until I challenged it. Our pastor even published an article in which he rejected John McArthur’s explanation that true faith always results in a transformed heart, resulting in good works. In this article he agreed with Zane Hodge, who claimed that since “We are only saved by grace, through faith”, the lifestyle of the “Christian” (read: baptized church member) is of no real consequence for his salvation. Some church members loved to ‘prove their point by referring to the passage, “We may be unfaithful, but God will always remain faithful.”  

Yet, the churches have always insisted that a godless lifestyle without repentance and fruit of godliness proves that there was no true faith or saving grace.  God’s faithfulness not only implies salvation for the true believer, who produces fruit of faith, but also in bringing judgment on those without true faith, who fail to produce the fruit of faith!
When we were young, we lived under the impression that we were already believers; we just needed to prove this by pursuing a life of obedience to our parents, our Christian teachers, and the elders in the church.
If we were serious in these efforts, then God would smile upon us and lovingly forgive us the sins that still remained in us.

Only much later did my wife and I realize that this was not in accordance to Paul’s teaching. Rather, when we have a heartfelt desire to please God out of pure thankfulness for his amazing grace, this is evidence that He has graciously forgiven our sins and has given us His Spirit to dwell in us as a foretaste for eternal life, lived for His glory!  Earlier, we could not recognize how self-serving we still were or how inconceivably great His love for us is that, while we were yet sinners, He gave up his Son to take our punishment.