Musings on Discipleship

Here are some thoughts on discipleship triggered by two things:

1. Being asked to give a ‘quick-fire trigger talk’ as part of a Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) gathering of church leaders, youth leaders and others reflecting on contemporary challenges around discipleship. It was a really good day organised by Rick Hill Discipleship Officer of the PCI (and MA grad of IBI), with lots of good input and discussion.

2. Reading Matthew Bates’ outstanding book Salvation by Allegiance Alone.

For various posts on Bates’ important book see:

Nijay Gupta has a fair and warm review here :

Michael Bird has two interviews here and here :

Scot McKnight did a series starting here:

The Gospel Coalition did an unsurprisingly critical review here

The fun part of a short talk is that you get to do what you tell students not to do: make deliberately provocative statements without following the niceties of detailed academic substantiation. The point of the talk is to raise issues and get open discussion going.

This is not to say these are random thoughts. They come from thinking about faith, gospel and works in teaching and preaching over a lot of years.

It’s also drawing on what Bates does with crystal clarity. He articulates a persuasive case for how themes of faith, gospel and works operate within the New Testament – from Jesus to Paul, John and other authors.

Here are 7 thesis statements with brief notes. Feel welcome to comment – whether agree, disagree or discuss …!

  1. THESIS 1: We have a major problem with discipleship in the West – and to be specific within the PCI.

Discipleship is patchy: in prayer, giving, service, training, Bible reading and study, evangelism, and a passion for holiness. Attendance is plummeting within denominations in the post-Christendom era, including the PCI. Membership is getting older. I can’t prove this, but formerly high levels of nominalism within Christendom are now being revealed within post-Christendom. The cultural pressure to ‘go to church’ has evaporated. Perhaps contemporary members are more committed and serious than many in the past? And there are lots of good things happening in various places, but no-one I talk to is bursting with optimism and confidence about the future of the institutional Church.

  1. Tinkering with programmes and courses isn’t going to address the problem

We can easily fall into the trap of imagining that ‘if only’ we got things right, that the Church can return to its former ‘glory’. Getting things right tends to mean things like having more attractive services, youth and children’s programmes, modern buildings etc. But reliance in externals is just rearranging the furniture. Something more fundamental is at issue. Treating symptoms is not going to address the root cause.

Neither is the solution dependence on pragmatic models of ministry. By this I mean adopting models of discipleship based on x principles of how Jesus made disciples and if we do the same mature disciples will result – as if discipleship is a nice easy recipe to follow and if we keep to the instructions – bingo! Some discipleship resources seem to owe more to management strategies for growing a business than they do to the teaching of the New Testament.

  1. That fundamental problem is theological

We need to think primarily theologically when we think about discipleship. So what’s the theological problem? Let me suggest it includes a superstructure of half-formed assumptions and misconceptions about both the content of the gospel and a proper response to the gospel (faith and works).

For various reasons there are deeply embedded and damaging popular misunderstandings of how gospel, faith and works are understood that distort both the way the gospel is talked about and how a proper response to that gospel is framed. This impacts both how discipleship is understood and how it is prioritised and practiced.

  1. The key issue revolves around the word pistis (faith)

What is faith? At what is it directed? How does it ‘work’?

These are very big questions indeed. Just have a read of Galatians for example to see how crucial a place ‘faith’ has within the argument of the letter. ‘Faith’ is clearly the key to Paul’s passionate appeal to the Galatians to come to their senses – but what does he mean by faith?

Popular understandings of the gospel and faith sound a bit like this:

“Have faith in Jesus and your sins are forgiven.”

“Forgiveness is a free gift, apart from works. Just believe in Jesus.’

“Jesus paid the price so I could be free.”

Or an ‘ABC gospel’: Accept. Believe. Confess. For an earlier post on ‘gospel lite’ versions see this.

In all these formulations, believing in Jesus is the key to salvation. As Bates says at one point, they frame faith in problematic ways that:

  • Confuse the content of the gospel (a narrow focus on sin and personal forgiveness)
  • Obscure the nature of true faith (emphasis on mental assent)
  • Misdirect the focus of faith (focus on my faith, my salvation, my choice)
  • Artificially separate the relationship between grace and works (former makes the latter of secondary importance and of no soteriological significance).
  • Mask what Christians are actually saved for (little or no space for the necessity of personal transformation and growth in holiness and Christlikeness).
  1. Faith tends to be set against works

Popular views of faith are imagined to work something like this:

  • Faith is opposed to works due to the ‘anxious Protestant principle’ of not importing works into saving faith.
  • Grace tends to be set against works as well. Grace invites, but does not obligate.
  • Thus works (which is essentially what we are talking about when we talk about discipleship) are artificially detached from both faith and grace
  • Works (discipleship) happen as a fruit of faith: a secondary cause.
  • But the real hard lifting has already been done (forgiveness, salvation, assurance, justification) by faith. Sanctification is secondary.
  • Some propose that ‘works are the fruit of faith’. But this itself is not how the Bible talks about faith – works are intrinsic to saving faith. We are judged ‘according to our works’.
  1. Pistis has a much broader sense of meaning than assent or trust: in both in the Bible and outside it

No-one is rejecting the central place of faith. Take Ephesians 2:8: It is by grace you have been saved through faith. But what does faith mean and how does it work?

Matthew Bates (and others) argue that pistis has a wider semantic range than in popular models outlined above. Pistis includes faithfulness; loyalty; fidelity; or as proposed by Bates as allegiance to the risen Lord. Faith here is best seen as a personal commitment for all of life.

If this is the case, Bates proposes that when it comes to discipleship we would be better off dropping faith language altogether in order to try to get back to what Scripture means by pistis.

In brief, the gospel is about the good news of Jesus the resurrected Lord and King. The gospel is therefore first and foremost Christology that calls for a response in faith to a person (not an abstract idea). Salvation is past present and future, lived out in hope of resurrection life in the new creation.

In Jesus’ teaching, discipleship is right action in light of his authority. Faith in Jesus = allegiance to Jesus the king. And this sense of allegiance fits the sense of pistis in wider Greco-Roman culture in NT times. A sense of fidelity and loyalty

Bates proposes it has three inter-related themes.

  1. Mental assent – the story of the gospel is true
  2. Confession of loyalty to the risen King
  3. Embodied fidelity – life lived as a citizen of the kingdom

John Barclay comes into the story here with his magnificent book Paul and the Gift that I posted on here and here and here.

He has shown how grace in the NT world is more subtle and complex than theological systems (both Protestant and Catholic) have often allowed. Certainly for Paul there is no problem in expecting grace involves reciprocity. Whereas ‘gracism’ that says that free grace ‘requires nothing’ is an alien concept to the NT.

This is not to say that salvation is not utterly and completely due to the grace of God. We cannot save ourselves. There is forgiveness and new life in the Spirit through confessing and repenting – turning to Jesus Christ in faith. But God’s grace is not opposed to a response of embodied obedience. Grace is not opposed to works, it leads to works shaped by loyalty and action in the world. It is opposed to merit.

  1. How faith, gospel and works are understood will impact discipleship

How we understand gospel, faith and works (and discipleship fits in the category of works) will have practical implications for how we think about evangelism and discipleship.

However you read the NT, any idea of ‘easy believism’, or ‘cheap grace’ is utterly alien. Both Calvinists and others should agree on this. Believers have assurance built on the person and work of Jesus, but since only God knows all we should be wary of offering any blanket easy reassurance.

How I read the NT is that there is a very high expectation of moral transformation. For Paul and Luke especially this is built on the empowering gift of the Holy Spirit. Maybe a basic starting point for discipleship in local churches is to aim high rather than settle for basic and often misleading indicators like church attendance …

What does ‘successful’ discipleship look like? And how can what goes on at church foster development towards that goal and vision?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Ben Witherington @ Irish Bible Institute on ‘Rethinking Romans’

Last Friday we had the great pleasure of hosting Prof Ben Witherington for IBI’s 2017 ‘Summer Institute’. The theme was ‘Rethinking Romans’.

IBI was full and it was a terrific day of teaching on Paul’s most famous epistle. It was also a pleasure and privilege to meet Ben and his wife Ann. He is remarkably prolific and has blessed the Church worldwide with a lifetime of top-class scholarship made accessible for teachers, preachers and lay believers.

He is also a top-class communicator. There are lots of video resources out there, but what doesn’t come over in those more formal recordings is Ben’s wit and humour – it was a fun day as well as an educational one. Thank you Ben.

Romans is perhaps the most influential letter ever written in human history. Every chapter resonates down the centuries of Christian theology. Themes like Christian anthropology, sin, justification, ethics, pneumatology, eschatology, predestination, Israel and the church, and Christian morality all emerge in the course of Paul’s persuasive argument for Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome to be united.

For example, take justification. From Luther, Calvin & co onwards – right on through to the New Perspective on Paul from the late 1970s to the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) between the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation – justification has been a continuously ‘live’ theological issue for centuries and Romans is at the heart of it all.

I’m not going to recount all that was covered in a packed day, but here are 8 snapshots. For more you can always go to a copy of this book sitting on my desk!

Snapshot 1: A female Apostle

Romans 16:7: ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia’ – a husband and wife team, both apostles, who are noteworthy in that group.’Deal with it’ said Ben in regard to Junia being a female apostle.

They have been jailed with Paul. Women did not tend to go to jail in antiquity. This is an indication of a remarkably courageous and counter-cultural witness which is also a deconstruction of patriarchal paradigms.

Following the work of Richard Bauckham, Ben suggested that Junia – which is the Latin name of Joanna – is the SAME person who is a patron of Jesus in Luke 8:3. Andronicus and Joanna were ‘in Christ before me’. Was this Joanna, wife of Chuza, of the gospels who was a patron of Jesus who then later became a co-worker of Paul? She went to Jerusalem with Jesus. Chuza could have had the Latin name Andronicus, or she may have been widowed and remarried.

If so, Ben suggests that we should think of TWO prominent names among the Jerusalem believers – that of the apostle Peter AND the Apostle Joanna (Junia).

Now that’s a head-wrecker for all sorts of theologies build on male apostleship AND those that elevate the primacy of Peter. All sorts of implications follow …

Snapshot 2: What is Romans all about?

Ben argued at length that Romans is best understood through the lens of ancient rhetoric – hence his series of NT ‘socio-rhetorical’ commentaries on the New Testament. The key ‘thesis statement’ of Romans is, he argued, Romans 1:16-17.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

The whole thrust of the letter is aimed at Gentile believers in Rome to understand their place in God’s story of redemption, and the place of Jews, and Jewish believers in Jesus, in that story.

Paul’s big concern is to ‘level the playing field’ between Jewish and Gentile Christians and to appeal for real embodied unity, love, and common worship among the Christian communities in Rome.

The gospel is first to the Jew. Gentiles are not to think more highly of themselves than they should. It is God’s power and God’s gospel that graciously includes both Jews and Gentiles.

The gospel is shocking and surprising – a crucified Messiah. But rather than be ashamed of the cross (as everyone in antiquity would have been), Paul is determinedly not ashamed. The only explanation for embracing the cross in this way is if the cross has been shown to be a place of God’s victory over death – in the resurrection of the Son.

Along with Richard Hays and N T Wright, BWIII goes for pistis Christou meaning ‘the faithfulness of Christ’. But his faithfulness is always accompanied by others placing their faith in Christ. The faithfulness of Christ is the basis of faith in Christ. Jesus’ faithfulness in mission means that anyone (you or I) may believe (response of faith)

When if comes to righteousness, Ben contends that it would be better if the dikaio word group was not translated as ‘justification’ at all. It is too redolent of legal / impersonal language to capture the way righteousness is all about God setting relationships right. It is all about moral transformation – that is the heart of Paul’s concern for the believers he writes to in the New Testament.

Snapshot 3. No imputed righteousness but moral transformation of the believer

Ben is a Wesleyan. His commentary on Romans is one of the few written from an Arminian perspective. While he said he has much to thank the Reformers for, not surprisingly he interprets Romans in a very different way to traditional Calvinist readings.

For example, take Romans 4, Abraham and righteousness. The righteousness in question is that of Abraham. It is NOT Christ’s righteousness somehow imputed to believers. God sees us as we are. Ben sees imputed righteousness as a ‘legal fiction’. Imputed righteousness is not there in Romans 4 – it is reading back into the text by the Reformers who were overly shaped by Latin translations of the text.

What is being talked about is an imparting of righteousness to believers, in the Spirit which leads to holiness and moral transformation.

Luther’s presuppositions led him to read Romans 7 as typical of the Christian life. But it is a total misreading of the text to see it as a description of the normal struggles of the believer (an internal conflict of flesh versus spirit). What Paul is doing is talking about the pre-Christian condition through the lens of Adam.

I agree wholeheartedly with this view of flesh and Spirit. For more on flesh / Spirit see this post. My chapter ‘Solus Spiritus’ in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life argues, as the title suggests, for the Spirit being at the core of Paul’s understanding of new creation life that leads to a transformed moral and ethical life in the world.

Snapshot 4: a transformed life of holiness

Ben’s reading of Romans 8 can be summarised like this:

This is not to say Christians cannot sin, it is to say that Christians are without excuse. Whatever your struggles are, greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world. Call on the Spirit of God. We are in the process of being sanctified by Jesus Christ. I am saying that we sin against the grace of God. God’s grace and Spirit is sufficient to help us avoid intentional sin. Christians are MORE responsible for their sin than non Christians.

This reflects the high expectations of holiness in the Wesleyan tradition – and of course Ben would add – Paul and ultimately God himself.

So Christians should be eagerly pressing on to the goal of the new creation and resurrection life to come. If we are not, we are failing to fulfil our calling.

Snapshot 5: God is good – not all that happens in this world is of God

Romans 8:28 famously says

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him

Ben argues that this is a long way from God fore-ordaining all things such that cancer, violence, injustice and evil are all somehow part of his good plan.  God is not the one who blights us, sends us disease, and afflicts us. Not everything in this world is of God – there are powers of darkness and evil at work.

The ones for whom all works together for good are not some abstract humanity – they are the ones who love God. Paul’s concern is the destiny of those who love God. This is a word of encouragement. Today we can know that if you are in Christ you have a great destiny.

Snapshot 6: Can  you lose your salvation?

Basically the answer is ‘Yes’.

Ben argued that ‘lose salvation’ is the wrong way to look at it. Paul’s warnings are not about misplacing your faith – they are about intentional apostasy. Calvinism does not take Paul’s warnings at face value – or the warnings of Hebrews 6.

It is clear, he contends, that apostasy is possible. This is ‘throwing away your salvation’ rather than losing it.

Snapshot 7: N T Wright can be wrong

As is well known and I have posted about here, BWIII is not a fan of NTW’s equating Israel with the Church. The former argues that Romans 9-11 is about how the Jews are TEMPORARILY broken off from the people of God, but God is not finished with them yet. When the full number of the Gentiles is gathered in, there will be a divine overcoming of what Paul calls the ‘impiety of Jacob’ – which is non-Christian Israel. The church is not Israel. Israel will be saved when Christ returns – by faith in Jesus, by grace.

I’m still figuring out this one. Reading my old post and listening to Ben, the differences are not that great. There is one story, the only way in is by faith in Jesus, the Mosaic law has come to an end. The Abrahamic covenant has been fulfilled.

The difference is BWIII’s insistence that ‘Israel’ does not mean church and Israel has a distinct future which involves many Jews being brought into the story of Jesus.

Snapshot 8: If you are a Christian, you are not your own

Quite simply the framework for Romans 12-15 is this

You do not belong to you. You belong to the Lord.

Live accordingly through faith in Jesus and by obedience to the Spirit.

You can’t get much more counter-cultural to Western individualism than that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

On Joy

What image comes to mind when you think of joy?

I can’t think about joy without picturing a couple sitting around a kitchen table in an anonymous Communist-style tower block apartment back in Ceaucescu’s Romania. They had lost jobs, been in prison, were regularly hounded by the Securitate, had poor health and little or no access to decent medical care.

They were (and are) two of the most joyful people I have ever met.

Joy is a hard thing to define. You know it when you see it – and know when it is missing. As I suggested in the last post, I’m suspicious of the idea that joy can be so deep down that it never surfaces in visible, tangible ways. Joy, I think, can’t really exist without a delight in life and in other people. It’s a sense of happiness and gladness that can’t be contained. It is not superficial cheeriness, but neither is it possible without smiles, humour and laughter.

There is a lot of joy in the New Testament – in Jesus, John, Paul and others. I did a little study of joy (chara) and grouped some examples into different categories (this is not exhaustive and not researched – just a quick sketch).

  1. Joy at the promise of the Messiah

Luke 1:14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth

Luke 2:10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.

  1. Joy at the word / gospel / kingdom of God

Mat 13:20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy

Mat 13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Luke 8:13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy.

1Pe 1:8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory

  1. Experiencing the joy of God

Mat 25:23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’

  1. (Mega) Joy at the resurrection

Mat 28:8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Luke 24:41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marvelling he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

Luke 24:52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy

  1. Joy in Mission

Luke 10:17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord even the demons are subject to us in your name!”

Luke 15:7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Acts 8:8 So there was much joy in that city.

Acts 15:3 So being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.

  1. Joy in and through Jesus

John 15:11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

John 16:20 Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.

John 16:22 So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

John 16:24 Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive that your joy may be full.

John 17:13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.

  1. Joy in the actions and goodness of God

Acts 12:14 Recognizing Peter’s voice in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate.

  1. Joy in the Spirit

Acts 13:52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

Rom 14:17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Rom 15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Gal 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

1Th 1:6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction with the joy of the Holy Spirit,

  1. Joy in Relationships within the family of God

Rom 15:32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.

2Cor 7:13 Therefore we are comforted. And besides our own comfort, we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all.

2Cor 8:2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.

Philippians 1:3-4 I thank God in my remembrance of you always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy

Philippians 2:29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honour such men

2Ti 1:4 As I remember your tears I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy.

Heb 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

2Jo 12 Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face so that our joy may be complete.

  1. Joy in Spiritual Maturity and Progress of others

2Cor 1:24 Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.

2Cor 7:4 I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.

Philippians 1:25 Convinced of this I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith,

Philippians 2:2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

Philippians 4:1 Therefore, my brothers whom I love and long for my joy and crown stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.

Col 1:11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy,

1Th 2:19-20 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.

Heb 12:11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant [joyful], but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

1John 1:4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

3John 4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

  1. Joy in the midst of suffering and persecution

Heb 10:34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

Jam 1:2 Count it all joy, my brothers when you meet trials of various kinds

  1. The Joy of Jesus

Heb 12:2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Perhaps there are things that strike you afresh as you read that list. Here are some that occurred to me in no particular order:

i. Christian joy is, well .. Christian. It is centered on the good news of Jesus – as promised Messiah, the faithful saviour, the risen Lord who ‘for the joy set before him endured the cross.’

ii. Joy has to come from somewhere. It is a virtue that needs sustaining, And in a Christian framework it is tied to the Spirit who gives new life. Joy is a sign of the Spirit at work. Joylessness is a sign that the Spirit has vacated the building. This is why it is almost impossible to separate joy from other fruit of the Spirit.

iii. Christian joy flows from rejoicing in the spiritual progress of others and seeing fruit in mission. It is other focused. Many instances of joy are relational, radiating from deep friendships and a common identity as followers of Jesus.

A personal aside here. This week at IBI we have been celebrating with students the end of the academic year. Many have shared stories of what they have learnt and experienced at College – and it has been humbling and deeply encouraging to hear again and again students say that they have been transformed, challenged, envisaged, and impassioned. And the other consistent theme is joy in deep friendships made – along with a lot of affectionate mockery, craic, fun and lack of proper respect for their teachers may I say …

iv. Ultimately Christian joy depends on the good news of the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christians can be and should be joyful in the world of tears because this world does not and will not have the last word.

The unsmiling dour Lurgan Spade Christian who has a deep deep joy is I’m afraid ultimately life-denying and gospel denying. Unattractive gloom does not speak of hope, love, joy and transformation. It speaks more of a fatalism and hope-lessness, a gospel of bad news rather than good.

There is not one instance I could see where joy resulted from a material thing or experience.  This is not to go down a grim ascetic route, God created the world and it was very good. It is just to note that the focus in the NT is joy revolving around the serious things we discussed in the last post. The material (fallen) world as a source of joy is relatively unimportant.

I wonder here how much my life – and the church in the West – finds sources of joy largely within the world on its own terms. Things like good food, friends, holidays, creation, slick technology, a home etc. And so, bit by bit, we find it harder and harder to imagine joy that does not depend on these things?

v. Christians are to be joyful because they belong to that new world, right in the midst of this old one. Not in an escapist sense – exactly the opposite. They are to be serious people of hope, and justice, and mission and courage because God is and will redeem this gloomy serious world into a new world of joy.

Joy, theologically framed, is therefore a foretaste of the world to come. We love and laugh and rejoice now because of the joy set before us.

9780567669964Back to the conversations between Brian Brock and Stanley Hauerwas one last time. The book finishes on an entirely appropriate note – that of joy. I love what SH says here (not sure how he knows he has only 5 or so years to live)..

Joy isn’t something you try to have. It’s an overwhelming that you suddenly find yourself taken up in an activity that just offers satisfaction that you could not have imagined as possible. Yesterday when I came in and you and I looked at each other it was joy, wasn’t it? I find it when I’m at worship, over and over, the joy of having been made part of this wonderful world that otherwise could not be imagined. I find it in the joy of the work we have been given as theologians. Funny as it is! How silly to think you could know how to talk about God? But that’s what we’ve been given to do. I just find it a constant surprise. To speak in another key, I wonder what it means that I’ll be 76 in July. I don’t have more than five— or a little more— years to live. I thought I would be afraid of death, and I may be, but I haven’t experienced it that way yet. Probably because I still don’t know I’m going to die. I think, one, I have had such a wonderful life and, two, whatever Heaven may be, it will be joy. I don’t know what it means to be part of that, but I am sure it is there, because I think that all that is is surrounded by joy. [286]

Brock later quotes from Hauerwas’ commentary on Matthew,

The world is not what it appears to be, because sin has scarred the world’s appearance. The world has been redeemed— but to see the world’s redemption, to see Jesus, requires that we be caught up in the joy that comes from serving him.

And Hauerwas responds that in effect being caught up in joy means “the great adventure” of refusing “to let the old world overwhelm the world that we have been given in Christ”.

The Christian life as the great adventure of joy – I like that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

An Easter Reflection: 1 John 4, love, life, wrath and the cross

In 1 John 4: 7-10, the apostle writes this:

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9. This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

That is 9 occurences of the noun or verb for love of [agapē (love) and agapaō (to love)] in 4 verses. I John is easily the most ‘love saturated’ book in the Bible and these verses represent the most ‘love saturated’ section of the epistle.

Famously – and uniquely in Scripture – John states that ‘God is love’. Love ‘comes from God’ because God, in himself, in his essential being, is love. This means everything that he does is loving – whether creating, sustaining, redeeming or judging.

For John, love is never abstract; it is always concrete and practical. God’s love takes the visible and tangible form of sending his one and only Son into the world – in John a realm of sin, death, rebellion and hate. If love is the motive, the result is that we might have life through him.

John thinks in big picture theology rather than systematic details. The ‘sending’ of the Son is shorthand for the whole story of Jesus – his incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection. His focus here is on the cross as verse 10 makes clear.

The Son is sent in love to give us life. But how does this work?

1. Somehow the death of the beloved Son is an ‘atoning sacrifice’ (hilasmos) for our sins – yours and mine. Despite some attempts to evade this, hilasmos has the sense of propitiation – turning away divine wrath against sin and sinners via an acceptable sacrifice. The love of God sits right alongside his anger and judgement against sin. It is at the cross that the love and judgement of God meet. To see Easter and the cross only as a supreme example of divine love and to airbrush atonement for sin out of the picture is to depart from the apostolic gospel.

2. In atoning for our sins, the death of the Son gives believers life. This implies a doctrine of regeneration. To be in the world is to be in a realm of death. Through God’s loving initiative, we are given the gift of eternal life. We no longer are to belong to the realm of the world.

3. Easter is solely dependent on God’s love and is God’s initiative alone – we are utterly unable to deal with our sin or be reborn into new life. It is only God who can  atone for sin and give us life. He does so at supreme cost to himself.

4. If the whole point of Easter is to give us life – what does this life look like? Quite simply it is a life of love. John’s focus is our love for each other. If we do not love, it reveals that we do not actually know the God who is love. Love is the ‘proof’ that we have received new life and our sins have been atoned for in the death of the Son. As we enter this Easter weekend, let’s first and foremost remember that both the motive and the ultimate purpose of the cross is love.

Easter is therefore a good time to reflect on our ‘love lives’ – how well are we loving?

Easter is an appropriate time to pray, repent and ask God to help us love – to be the people that the atoning death of Christ is designed to make us be. Perhaps there is someone we need to act to be reconciled with this Easter.

Easter is most of all a time to rejoice and worship the God who is love and who acts in love so that we might have the privilege and joy to know him.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Paul & Gift (2)

img_20161104_225105One more post on Paul and the Gift.

Contrary to popular (particularly Reformed) Christian views, Paul does not somehow stand out uniquely from all other Jews of his time as the only one who suddenly ‘gets grace’. He is part of debate within Judaism in terms of the priority of grace (God’s initiative) and its incongruity (the mismatch between the goodness of God and the unworthiness of the human).

What does of course stand out is how Paul interprets

“the Christ-event as the definitive enactment of God’s love for the unlovely, and to the Gentile mission, where the gifts of God ignore ethnic differentials of worth and Torah-based definitions of value (“righteousness”)”   565-66

This theology of grace re-shapes Paul’s understanding of the identity of Israel. His theology of grace is NOT AGAINST Judaism (as a religion of works). God’s grace relativises the Torah in a way absolutely at odds with any of his Jewish peers.

“Paul is neither anti-Jewish nor post-Jewish, but his configuration of the grace of God in Christ alters his Jewish identity and makes him question his former allegiance to the Torah. 566

The crucial theme of Barclay is that for Paul the gift of God’s grace is incongruous (without regard to the worth of the recipient). Non-Jewish ‘un-worthy’ Gentiles pagans are ‘called in grace’ to be in Christ and gifted with the Spirit. But so are Jews (like Paul himself in his own experience). The Christ=event dissolves every pre-existent classification of worth. So the new communities of Christ are Torah free (not anti -Torah) made up of people from across social, ethnic, religious, gender distinctions.

The flip side of this inclusive grace is an inclusive theology of sin. No exceptions – the radical claim that all are sinners (Jew and Gentile) are under the rule of sin. The Torah can’t solve it. The only thing that can is the grace of God in Christ and the gift of the Spirit.

This ties to Paul’s mission:

The goal of Paul’s mission is the formation of communities whose distinct patterns of life bear witness to an event that has broken with normal criteria of worth. Paul expects baptism to create new life-orientations, including forms of bodily habitus that express the reality of resurrection-life in the midst of human mortality. 569

In other words, the gift of grace carries an expectation of transformation and obedience to the reality of new life in the Spirit.

In Christian history, grace was reapplied in very different contexts to the original missional one of Paul. For example, in the Reformation grace is ‘rediscovered’ by Luther, NOT in the context of preaching the gospel to people who had never heard it to form a new community of Jews and Gentiles detached from their previous cultural identities, but INTERNALLY within Christendom (my term not Barclay’s). In other words, grace was applied as

“a tool for the inner reform of the Christian tradition, its critical edge turned against believers, undermining not their pre-Christian criteria of worth but their pride or purpose in achieving Christian worth … an attack on the believer’s confidence or independence in adhering to Christian norms. 570

The ‘law’ is reinterpreted as = a reliance on self-righteousness. And Judaism unfortunately is therefore seen as a religion of works from which Paul was freed by the grace of G0d.

Augustine was key here as one who interpreted “boasting” in believers as “pride” of those who attribute merit to themselves and not to God. It is this inner turn of grace within the life of the believer (which is not what Paul was talking about) which is then taken up so famously by Luther. Paul’s polemic against ‘works of the law’ are taken to mean “subjective evaluation of one’s own good works as effective for salvation.” 571-72

Reading this, I’d put Barclay closer to the side of the ‘New Perspective’ which has been making similar points (if not identical, Barclay’s approach of the incongruous nature of God’s grace and framework of worth are crucially new).

He identifies his departure from the New Perspective around the theology of Paul’s mission.

A criticism of Sanders for example was that he found actually little difference between Christianity and Judaism – both were religions of grace. The ‘problem’ of Judaism was that it was not Christianity.

Famously also J D G Dunn had argued that Sanders’ Jewish Covenantal Nomism’ actually preached “good Protestant doctrine” (grace is God’s initiative [prior], human effort is the response to divine initiative, and that good works are the fruit of salvation, not its root). Justification by faith for Paul, according to Dunn, seemed little more than the boundaries had been widened to include Gentiles.159

N T Wright’s fulfilment theology, where Israel’s sin was to hold on to ethnic and national privilege despite the righteousness now being available to all nations, also tends to downplay the importance of grace in Paul’s theology. 163

So Barclay wants to highlight that it is the theology of the Christ-gift given to all that lies behind Paul’s radical mission.

A nice line:

“It is because grace belongs to no one that is goes to everyone” 572

“Paul’s ecclesiology has its roots in his soteriology of grace”

A challenge for churches today is to identify and re-articulate “what it is about the good news that makes them socially and ideologically distinctive.”

I think he means by this that grace was deeply radical in Paul’s day, it remains deeply radical today. Not only ‘internally’ in how no individual can be ‘worthy’ of God and needs grace, but also in how churches can be communities of grace in a fast-changing post-Christendom culture.

A culture where little can be taken for granted any more in how ‘church’ and ‘gospel’ and ‘grace’ are understood.

And perhaps a culture that is perhaps as deeply divided in its own way as Paul’s was in terms of social, religious, gender, economic and cultural boundaries.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Grace reimagined: Paul and the Gift

img_20161104_225105Looking forward to preaching at MCC tomorrow. As a one off sermon rather than part of a series, it’s going to be about grace; connected to working through John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift. Hopefully the sermon will not be a lecture on the book! Will be trying hard to earth it.

Prof Barclay was in Maynooth last year.

What would you say grace is?

Something like the unconditional love of God? Or God’s unmerited favour to sinners?

Far greater minds than mine have hailed this book as a masterpiece and one that will re-shape how grace is understood within Christian scholarship and the wider church (Have a read of the endorsements on the Eerdmann’s website above).

Having spent quite a bit of time researching and writing a book chapter ‘The New Perspective and the Christian Life: Solus Spiritus’ within The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life this is an area I find fascinating.

Not so much on ‘Old’ versus ‘New’ (I don’t really have a dog in that fight), but how the discussion relates to mission, how the gospel is presented, the role of the Spirit (pneumatology), the place of Israel, the radical implications of who can be righteous before God (ecclesiology) and how (soteriology), the identity of Jesus (Christology) and how to read the Bible as a whole (narrative vs systematic) and how we understand the Christian life itself.

So a lot of things are tied up in understanding Paul.

So it is fantastically impressive to see John Barclay cut with a surgeon’s knife through over 40 years of contentious debate between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Perspectives. His operation is clinical (in the best sense), analytical, massively learned and compelling.

A huge issue that he brings out so well is that a lot of the confusions and disagreements about Paul, grace, justification and works, is that people are often working with different understandings of what grace actually is and how it works.

For example, many people say that grace is ‘free’ and ‘unconditional’. But what does unconditional actually mean in practice?

Does it mean that God’s saving grace in Christ is unconditional (it is not conditioned on anything we do or are)? OK. But is grace still free or unconditional after that?

Protestants have deep anxieties about subsequent ‘works’ being mixed up with grace and talk a lot about grace being ‘free’ if it is truly to be grace. Catholics generally don’t (they talk about an infused righteousness that can go up and down in the Christian life).

‘Old’ Perspective people are generally Reformed and have been dead set against some ‘New’ Perspective voices that seem (to them) to make works part of saving faith and so undermine grace.

E P Sanders, who kicked off the whole debate in 1977, talked about Judaism as a religion of ‘Covenantal Nomism’ – Jews were already ‘in’ the Covenant by grace. All of Judaism, he said, was a ‘religion of grace’ and therefore Jews had the task of ‘staying in’ by keeping the Torah. And the implication was that Christianity worked much the same way.

But this challenged ‘Old Perspective’ ideas that went back to Luther and in some ways all the way to Augustine. Namely, that Paul’s solution of grace was in contrast to Jewish legalism. The gospel of grace was an answer to legalism (self-righteousness).

Today, the dominant way evangelicals talk about grace and the gospel is in terms of liberation from self-righteousness (trying to save ourselves). This is good news to be sure, but was Paul talking about grace as salvation from legalism?

Barclay’s book is so important for a number of reasons: he is a world class scholar on Paul. He also has done years of research into gift in the Greco-Roman world and also has discussed in detail the ‘history of grace’ – through people like Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Sanders and modern scholarship.

Barclay’s brilliant move is to offer an original and creative 6 fold matrix for defining what grace actually is and how it works within the realm of gift. This then becomes his analytical tool for seeing how grace is being understood and used by Paul and also by those theologians through history.

Reading through his extensive conclusions I found myself nodding in agreement and having plenty of ‘Ah Ha’ moments when something vague became crystal clear. He has a terrific gift of his own for writing clearly and logically. In doing so he has forged, not a middle way between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Perspectives, but a way that helps to bring out the best insights of both into a fresh and convincing understanding of grace.

But that’s not all. Paul’s theology of grace is worked out in mission to Gentiles. Barclay sees how Luther’s reconfiguration of grace, while departing from Paul in significant ways, was still a brilliant re-application of grace in the context of Medieval Catholicism. As we think about grace today, we also need to be thinking about how it applies missionally – and he finishes the book with insightful ideas for grace in our contemporary Western world (one or two of which I will be nicking tomorrow).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

John Barclay in Maynooth: the incongruity of grace

John Barclay , Lightfoot Professor of Divinity, Durham University was speaking in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth this evening on ‘Grace as Free Gift: Freedom from What?’ This was the opening keynote address of the Irish Theological Association Annual Conference.

His 2015 book Paul and the Gift is one of those very big books a top scholar writes at the peak of his / her career. I don’t mean in big in size (although at over 600 pages it ain’t small) but in significance. It is the fruit of many years of research and has caused a substantial amount of reaction and debate, most to my knowledge very positive.

If you are keen you can read two substantial reviews at Books & Culture by Scot McKnight and Wesley Hill  Others of a more Reformed persuasion can be found here  (Thomas Schreiner) and Alistair Roberts here. Ben Witherington (as he is wont to do) did a mammoth blogging review in dialogue with John Barclay – like a mini-book in itself.

img_20161104_225105And if you are really keen you can always buy and read the book – I’ve a copy (here’s a pic) and plan to read it over Christmas if all goes well.

All to say is that this post isn’t yet another review (which would be a bit difficult since I’ve only glanced through it as yet and have read reviews). But it is some observations and thoughts on tonight’s lecture.

First, Barclay developed his argument with clarity, brevity and good humour in four sections.

1. GRACE IS IN THE FIELD OF GIFT

This is talking about grace in general. Remember when someone gave a you a nice gift? Or invited you to dinner? What is going on? The act of grace you have experienced is a free, voluntary act. You are not legally obligated to respond! Neither (I hope) are you eating the dinner and working out a budget of what it cost your host in terms of time and money so that you know exactly how much to ‘pay back’ when you invite them around in return – the gift is non-calcuable. But note the sense of obligation to reciprocate often created by a gift. But the main thing a gift is doing is building relationship – they are personal. They are also ‘discriminatory’ in the sense that you have received that invitation because the person likes you – they haven’t invited a total stranger or someone they don’t like.  Barclay gave the example of a will – you leave money to people and causes you have affinity with. You might not leave money to the local dog shelter because you believe that your money is better spend helping humans .. this is discriminatory grace.

In the ancient world, the expectation was that the gods gave favour in this sort of discriminatory fashion – to people of value and worth. So the qualifying factors – perhaps your ethnic identity, gender (usually male preference), your moral superiority etc – determined the giving of grace. For God / gods to do otherwise would be to cause upheaval and social chaos – where is justice and social order if grace is indiscriminate?

2. GRACE AS FREEDOM FROM PRIOR CONDITIONS OF WORTH  (the incongruity of grace)

This is where Christian grace becomes revolutionary and truly shocking. God’s grace is given without regard to ethnic, moral, gender or any other conditions. In fact ‘Christ died for the ungodly’. Repeatedly in the NT  (but also foreshadowed in the OT – I think more could have been said here on texts like Deut 10:14-22, Isaiah 58:6-7, Job 29:12-17 which make clear that God’s impartial love and grace is intrinsic to the OT and simply carried on a climax in the NT) it is stressed that God’s grace is unconditioned – Jesus and the Prodigal Son, Paul telling the Corinthians that it was exactly that they were NOT rich, wise, clever and powerful that they were chosen by God – it was in this choice that God was demonstrating his ‘foolishness’ (Paul is not into building false self-esteem here!).

This is Barclay’s important notion of the ‘incongruity’ of grace – it does not make logical sense – it is a misfit between the gift and the worth of the recipient.

This radical notion of grace has been central to all Western forms of theology – Catholic and Protestant. But there are struggles and differences in how the incongruity works out in the life of a Christian.

Famously, for Luther is it ‘simil iustus et peccator‘ – simultaneously justified and a sinner. This does NOT mean that Luther is thinking introspectively that he in himself is both a sinner and righteous person. He means that he is a 100% a sinner and that he is 100% righteous only because he is united with Christ and his righteousness. In other words, for Luther, grace was permanently incongruous.

Others, in different ways have wanted to square God’s incongruous grace with the expectation that grace will be transformative – and therefore effective in making the changed sinner more congruent with God’s final justice. Augustine, Aquinas  and Calvin all wrestled with this.

Barclay referred to Therese of Lisieux who, near death, said that if she was to be judged according to works then she would have no works – all she would have were the works of Christ in her (very Lutheran indeed!).

But the Christian tradition as a whole have agreed that God’s grace truly is a wonderful and life-giving freedom from being in some way good enough to be chosen by God. (Again a text like Deuteronomy emphasises similar themes – Israel is specifically told she was chosen exactly NOT because she deserved it).

3. GRACE AS FREEDOM FROM OBLIGATION?

Here we get the crux of popular distortions of grace among a lot of contemporary Christianity – both Catholic and Protestant. These distortions are shaped by a Western notion that grace is not really grace unless it is ‘unconditional’. In other words, there is absolutely no expectation of reciprocity or return.

There is a key difference between ‘unconditioned’ grace and ‘unconditional’ grace. One is the basis on which grace is given, the other is the expectation of return in light of grace.

Barclay mentioned Kant (grace is grace only if there is no obligation) and Derrida here – who said that creating any sense of obligation in the recipient destroyed the sense of gift. It was better to give anonymously. Indeed the best gift would be given when you are dead – then there is no chance of obligation of a return gift! This is typical of the idea of unobliging gift – no strings attached at all.

Yet the Bible has little difficulty in the idea of obligation in light of God’s grace. For Paul, the grace of God is revealed in Christ. That gift places believers under the lordship of Christ (literally slavery to Christ) – Christians are under new ownership and are ‘to live to the Lord’ and ‘live a life worthy’ of the gospel.

But a key qualifier here is that the gift of grace created relationship. There is a new status – beloved son, adopted by the Spirit, abba Father .. out of which the believer is to live a new life in love and thankfulness to God. And this is a social context – worked out in community

It is only because of our radical individualism that we can imagine there is no obligation of a gift of grace given.

4. GRACE AS FREEDOM FROM PRE-CONSTITUTED CRITERIA OF WORTH

Barclay has been forging a path that is between Old and New Perspectives on Paul. In this section he sounded distinctly ‘New Perspective’ in that his concern is that grace too often has been interpreted in narrow individual categories – John Newton’s Amazing Grace captures wonderful truth but is detached from the social implications of unconditioned grace.

Take Galatians (on which Barclay did his PhD): the real issue is not works-righteousness he says, but WORTH. The pagan Galatians were not deemed worthy by the Judaizers until they were circumcised. But says Paul, any pre-conditions of worth are utterly destroyed by God;s grace – so Galatians 3:28

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

In Corinthians, God’s grace subverts human ideas of worth – they are simply not worthy by standards of the ancient world. This is actually God’s point in choosing them. There is an intentionality in God’s grace to turn human ideas of worth on their head. This is why the early church was socially revolutionary (again a New Perspective feel to this, although he did also say that while NP got the social dimensions of justification well, it tended to lose the theological motive for how and why Jews and Gentiles were brought into one new community – that theological basis being God’s grace). Justification by grace alone created new communities formed only by people who were recipients of grace and not on any other criteria at all.

The context for Paul was missional – grace dissolves existing value systems regarding age, education, social status, gender, ethnicity, wealth etc.

APPLICATIONS

Here Prof Barclay was interesting and pastorally very helpful. Note the title of part 4 – it is not guilt or merit but WORTH. Grace tells us that the gospel is for all regardless of their worth.

Two areas of application:

First, chatting to him afterwards, he made a very interesting point about ageing – old age is the hardest time of life: you are losing friends, status, work, health, strength, social mobility, and maybe even your mind. This is where the gospel really impacts at a deep level for it speaks of a worth that is not measured by any of these things – a worth that is only dependent on God’s grace and this gives hope beyond loss of all we hold most dearly and that which currently gives us value and esteem.

Worth asking ourselves a question – how would you cope do you think if all that currently gives you a sense of worth was taken away?

Second, in a ‘sinless’ society with little notion of guilt this is another way of talking about the good news. He commented that numerous students and young people are under enormous pressure to measure up in a social media saturated society – cyber bullying, internet shaming, constant criticism, hierarchies of acceptance, pressure to perform and conform are more intense in a globally connected world.

Here God’s grace remains revolutionary good news – there is life and acceptance and welcome in a new community of brothers and sisters who gather around the Lord’s table solely on the basis of grace – nothing else.

This is why it is so important to work towards churches where there is real diversity – across gender, social, money, culture and ethnic lines. For this is a living breathing community of grace where we are reminded that this is what Christianity is all about – it’s not a narrow culturally specific religious club, it is about God’s unconditioned grace in Jesus Christ.

Comments, as ever, welcome.