This is the great question, from Romans 9:14, that has caused much debate over the centuries as it pertains to election, going back to Pelagius and Augustine, and even as Paul shows, during his own day. If God chooses to have mercy on one and not another, is He at fault, is it unjust? Paul’s answer? By no means! But why? He gives two pieces of evidence from the old testament to back up his claim that God is indeed not unjust in His sovereign election:
In response to the worldly “wisdom” going around these days that says entertaining doubt and questioning the Lord’s righteousness in trial and His infinitely sovereign wisdom and control of all things, something that is beyond comprehension in how and why He carries out or permits what He does, as something that should be encouraged, I present to you, Job.
Up to this point, Elihu has just finished rebuking Job and his friends. He then exhorts Job to glorify the Lord. Previous to Elihu’s response, Job had just finished taking up his own defense and questioning God in light of the very weighty trials permitted in his life, by essentially asking, “Why God? What is it I’ve done to deserve this?” (Indicated by the fact he tries to draw conclusions from his own works that he lists) This is just a portion of God’s response in Job 38-40:1-2 (I’ll just quote portions):
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:2-7)
“Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place,that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? It is changed like clay under the seal, and its features stand out like a garment. From the wicked their light is withheld, and their uplifted arm is broken.” (Job 38:12-15)
“Who can number the clouds by wisdom? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods stick fast together?” (Job 38:37-38)
“Do you give the horse his might? Do you clothe his neck with a mane? Do you make him leap like the locust? His majestic snorting is terrifying. He paws in the valley and exults in his strength; he goes out to meet the weapons. He laughs at fear and is not dismayed; he does not turn back from the sword. Upon him rattle the quiver, the flashing spear, and the javelin. With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground; he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet. When the trumpet sounds, he says ‘Aha!’ He smells the battle from afar, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.” (Job 39:19-25)
Finally the Lord says:
“Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it. (Job 40:1-2)”
“Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” (Job 40:4-5)
God then responds again:
“Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his? “Adorn yourself with majesty and dignity; clothe yourself with glory and splendor. Pour out the overflowings of your anger, and look on everyone who is proud and abase him. Look on everyone who is proud and bring him low and tread down the wicked where they stand. Hide them all in the dust together; bind their faces in the world below. Then will I also acknowledge to you that your own right hand can save you. (Job 40:7-14)
Job finally responds with a final expression of his complete submission to the fact that “all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?'” (Daniel 4:35)
Job’s response that submits and rests in the fact that God’s wisdom is enough, though it may not be comprehensible:
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6)
Humility. One of the points for trials in our lives is for the formation of humility. Job exhibits it here as a result of wrestling with God. There are tons of unanswered questions about why things happened the way they did for him. But it all comes down to resting in the truth that it is enough for God to be God, for His choices to be in the right and know that in spite of the pain, He is for you and knows what’s best to make you into His image as His child. Questioning God, shaking your fist at Him is easy. Trusting that He’s for you in spite of what you see and feel that’s faith, and opposed to all doubting.
Interestingly enough, as it relates to the aspect of God’s sovereignty (particularly as it relates to election and predestination), Paul follows a similar pattern of God’s response to Job in Romans 9:19-24. Paul has just laid out the truth that God chooses some to become children of God and not others, not based on works but on His own purpose and will, and that He’s perfectly righteous in doing so. So Paul begins verse 19 by preemptively asking a seemingly logical question from a fictional human questioner:
“You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:19-24)
In both of these contexts, both with Job and the readers of Romans, the response should be the same: put your hand over your mouth. Stop questioning (in the rebellious sense). Submit to His sovereign rule and grace. It is counterintuitively comforting (from the world’s standpoint). The world’s answer these days, especially in our liberal democracies (or what’s left of them) is to “question everything.” Faith doesn’t question, it submits in humility. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t probe to understand, but the type of questioning I’m referring to is asking God to give an account of Himself, putting him in the dock of human courts and thinking. As you can see, He doesn’t take too kindly to our sinful human questioning.
Now in dealing with people in trials, patience needs to be exhibited in their wrestling. People aren’t going to automatically come to this view. If they do, praise God, but most people have wrestling to do, even as believers. That doesn’t negate any of the aforementioned, but it is to say we need to be patient and understanding, sometimes not saying anything, especially if a trial or traumatic event is very fresh.
“In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will…” – Ephesians 1:4-5
In writing this, Paul desired that this wondrous truth cause us to exult in our salvation, not mourn over the truth itself. Far from it! It is a shame this doctrine produces fear in His people rather than overwhelming joy, as it did with Paul, who can’t even take a break for a breath he is so elated over the implications of the Gospel for His own life, let alone those of his readers. This truth highlights the largeness and eternal depths of God’s love for His people and gives us a solid foundation that cannot fail, rooted in the very nature and essence of who God is. God is love and He is also justice. And these two seemingly contradictory attributes are perfectly expressed in the cross of Christ.
In addition, predestination is never separated from the Person and work of Christ in His life, death and resurrection. We are “predestined… for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ.”
What a hope! Let us exult in the glorious wonder that 1) God has mercy on anyone, for we all deserve condemnation (justly), and 2) that He purposed to save His people in eternity past through the finished work of His own Son. The depths of God’s love are beyond searching out. They go into eternity. This gives weight to that truth. What a solid, eternal support to know that God is eternally for His people, never against them! This is just one of the many hopes we have in the Gospel.
… Have your big scholarly brother step up and speak for you. 🙂
(Original): http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/review/code=3863 – I find some of these surprising and others not so much.
In speaking of N.T. Wright’s new book, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, responding to and critiquing Piper’s defense of justification, entitled, The Future of Justification, itself critiquing Wright’s understanding of justification, McLaren says, “John Piper, it turns out, has done us all a wonderful favor. In writing the critique that invited this response, he has given Bishop Wright the opportunity to clearly, directly, passionately and concisely summarize many of the key themes of his still-in-process yet already historic scholarly and pastoral project. Wright shows–convincingly–how the comprehensive view of Paul, Romans, justification, Jesus, and the Christian life and mission that he has helped articulate embraces ‘both the truths the Reformers were eager to set forth and also the truths which, in their eagerness, they sidelined.’ Eavesdropping on this conversation will help readers who are new to Wright get into the main themes of his work and the important conversation of which it is a part. And it will give Wright’s critics a clearer sense than ever of what they are rejecting when they cling to their cherished old wineskins of conventional thought.” —Brian McLaren, author A Generous Orthodoxy
N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, is by far one of the most scholarly, well-read, intelligent people of the modern church. It is no wonder people from all different points of view are flocking to him for answers to all kinds of things pertaining to theology and history. His impact can be felt both in the secular academic world as well as the theological world within Christianity.
So what are we to make of him? Well, there are many things we can outright affirm with N.T. Wright, one example being the resurrection of Christ. He is a relentless defender of the historical resurrection of Jesus, having written extensively to show this to be not just a myth or tradition within the church, but a reality. We should all be very grateful for someone of his education and knowledge to be on our side in this matter against the heresies raised against this pillar doctrine of the church.
In addition to defending the resurrection, he is an excellent historian, having brought much knowledge in the way of first century Judaism. Understanding this historical context is vital to understanding the thought, issues and problems dealt with in the New Testament. He has done a massive amount of writing and contributed greatly to our appreciation for and understanding of first century Judaism. As believers, we would all do well to read his works on both the resurrection and first century history. We are indebted to his work in regard to both of these areas.
But what problems are there? Unfortunately, there are a few things we must be very careful on, the main thing I’ll speak about being Justification. I will stick with this because it is the biggest controversial point of his theology. In theological circles this has been labeled the New Perspective on Paul, though by no mean is he the first to advocate this position. And by no means is he advocating it in the same way the forerunners of this position did.
Because of Wright’s knowledge in the area of first century Judaism, his reading of the Reformational (Protestant, evangelical) understanding of Justification within Romans and Galatians in particular (Justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone), seems to have been affected. He reasons that terms in these books of Scripture such as “works of the law,” “justification,” amongst other terms used by Paul in relation to salvation, must be understood through the lens of first century Judaism, not the Reformers.
In addition, Wright says that continuing to read these terms in light of the Reformation is erroneous. He argues that we must go back to the surrounding cultural Jewish texts, looking past the Reformational writings, and even Augustine’s work in the third and fourth centuries, (something he has definitely done, I’ll give him that) and understand that these terms do not carry the Reformational meaning we all have become accustom to.
My question (as a side point): so are we now sliding back toward Rome after having gone through such a tremendous theological shift from her in the Reformation? Francis Beckwith’s departure from evangelicalism back into full communion with the RCC sure does seem to indicate so. He’s not the only one too. Many theologians within evangelicalism are now blurring the lines of distinction between the RCC and evangelical churches on the point of Justification.
Anyway, Wright is essentially saying that the Reformers are reading an understanding into these terms (and thus unto Justification) that is not there. This has all kinds of implications, and more broadly, this understanding creates a whole new systematic theology, because all points of theology are affected by the other points inevitably.
If that is true concerning those terms, what are we to make of the Protestant understanding of Justification? Well, Wright seems to reason that Justification, as Paul used it, refers primarily to our inclusion into the community of believers. According to him, the Reformers were bringing unnecessary presuppositions to the text, and having come out of such political and theological abuses by the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers were radically departing from the Roman Catholic understanding. Essentially, he is saying the Reformers were swinging a bit too far and throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Hmm. There is more to the argument, but I’m not smart enough to grasp the entirety of it to be honest. This is what I have “gotten” so far though. That may be a reductionistic explanation (I’m willing to learn on this), but that’s what I have understood from it thus far. To be fair, I do not believe he rejects the Reformers theological understanding in its totality, but it seems to me at least he is rejecting the Reformers understanding of Justification.
As it relates to Justification, the main problem that arises out of all of this is the nature of imputation, that is Christ’s perfect record and righteousness being credited to our account through His work in His life, death and resurrection, at least as understood in the recovery of the Gospel during the Reformation. If Justification is simply about being in or out of the community of believers, then my question is, why did Paul seem to make the argument a legal one in both Romans and Galatians? And why did he seem to always relate his explanation to salvation and eternal life? Was it or was it not about eternal salvation, or just inclusion within (or exclusion from) the community of believers?
Also, Wright makes the argument that the term “works of the law” in first century Judaism meant a “badge of honor” (or pride) within the community. So he goes on to say that in Galatians, for example, Paul is not making an argument that the Galatians were trusting in their “works of the law” to save them eternally, but that they were merely being prideful and excluding those who did not adhere to the same “works of the law” they were adhering to. Also, the one big thing I have a problem with in all of this is Paul’s statement in Galatians 4:11 which says, “I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” Is that a statement just about the Galatians including or excluding people merely? Or was it that they were eclipsing the Gospel by their supposed self-righteousness? I tend to think the latter.
This almost sounds like the same type of argument Arminians make in Romans 9 to say that what is being spoken of there is not the unconditional election of individuals to eternal salvation, but rather a temporal,corporate election of groups to historical roles. They both make the focus of the text temporal instead of eternal. Wright is way smarter than I ever will be though, and so I’m sure he could blow me away with some forceful argument as to how that is not what he is doing. But I just think his understanding may seem plausible, but in reality strays from what was recovered in the Reformation, that Christ’s work alone is what saves us. The Gospel itself is at stake in this debate.
Do you see how tricky all of this gets now? Quite a mess if you ask me. Wright’s arguments totally redefine the whole nature of the Gospel itself against the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of how we are saved and makes it one with a temporal focus instead of an eternal one. More than that, it opens the way, once again, for making works apart of our final justification, and thus turning Christianity into every other religion that says, “Do this and you shall live,” as opposed to the grace of the Gospel which says, “You can’t do this, Christ substituted places with you, and now you shall live.” Wright inherently seems to share their understanding that within our justification is included our sanctification, that is our works, because according to both of them (Wright and the RCC), Justification is the whole of the Christian life, instead of a once for all time declaration at the cross. There are a ton of other points of theology that are affected by this understanding. This is the most controversial though. This only scratches the surface.
So in summation, Wright’s works on first century Judaism and the resurrection of Christ should definitely be read and thought over. We should even use it in defense of the supremacy of Christ in our apologetic and evangelism work. Much progress has been made in defending the resurrection of Christ. But Wright’s theological and Scriptural understanding of Justification in particular should be read with great caution and warning. John Piper has written a book addressing the whole New Perspective, in defense of the historical, Reformational understanding. To me, Wright’s understanding has essentially paved the way for works to “re-enter” the understanding of evangelicals as it pertains to our Justification before God, one of the very reasons the Reformation was started to begin with.
Some more information on the New Perspective and N.T. Wright:
John Piper’s book against the New Perspective, responding to N.T. Wright in particular: http://www.monergismbooks.com/The-Futur … 17450.html
New Perspective section on Monergism.com: http://www.monergism.com/directory/link … rspective/