Paul and the Christian life (6) Tara Beth Leach

The penultimate chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is by Tara Beth Leach on ‘A Symphonic Melody: Wesleyan-Holiness Theology meets New-Perspective Paul’

9780801049767Just to reiterate the context of this discussion: the big question of this book is how does Paul the Jew – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel? What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?

This angle is an interesting one – Wesley’s concern for holiness – entire or perfect sanctification worked out in a Christian life motivated by pure love for God – immediately makes connections to themes within the NPP.

We’ve seen consistently in chapters so far common strands emerging: – ecclesiology across all boundaries, a new community marked by love, the role of the Spirit in creating and empowering believers to live the Christian life; a theology shaped by a radical and revolutionary new interpretation of the biblical narrative in light of the Apostle’s own experience.

Beth Leach sketches the contours of Wesley’s theology of original sin, prevenient grace, justification, sanctification, holiness and love. The discussion reminds how classically Reformed Wesley’s theology of justification is – leave out prevenient grace and there is no real gap here between the Arminian and Calvinist takes on Paul. Our works cannot save us; we are under the judgement of the law; faith is the only condition for justification, an act of God’s grace in Jesus Christ through whom sin is atoned for and the sinner declared righteous.

The distinctive emphasis of Wesley was how he tied justification together with the necessity and possibility of a radically transformed Christian life. It was not only guilt that is dealt with in Christ, it is also the power of sin. And so Wesley developed his – how would you put it? – positive? optimistic? confident? unrealistic? Pauline? – theology of the Christian life. A theology that taught and expected a life of holiness and love, empowered by the Spirit and marked by changed desires and priorities within.

I’ll put my cards on the table here and say, whatever you might think of Wesley’s version of a ‘two-stage’ reception of the Spirit (fine to have an Aldersgate experience but just don’t force a personal experience into a theological grid to impose on others), his passion, desire and conviction that God is in the business of spiritual renewal and change is far closer to Paul than a theology that one that talks a lot about being ‘saved’ and yet has little expectation of the power and presence of God in the subsequent Christian life.

Beth Leach maps Wesley’s holiness theology onto Paul’s vision for the Christian life, emphasising the latter’s corporate context. Her chapter doesn’t get into critical analysis of Wesley or the contemporary holiness movement, but she hints at the major problem within holiness spirituality and within Old Perspective soteriology – that of individualism. (I’d like to have heard a response to the criticism that Wesley mirrors the Old Perspective tendency to individualism, flowing out of an overly dominant justification theology that tends to flatten Paul’s wider narrative framework). The challenge for both is the Apostle’s call to what she terms a ‘Symphonic Melody’ – where it is only together that the orchestra can play beautiful music, each member needs the other. She concludes this way ..

Beethoven did not write his Overture from Egmont with one instrument in mind, but he also didn’t create it so that every instrument would sound exactly the same. Beethoven wrote the symphony with all the instruments in mind and for each instrument to shine in its unique way …. The beauty of music happens when the ensemble comes together in one unifying voice. In the very same way, our Creator and King did not create the redemptive narrative with one person in mind, but the goal has always been for a holy people. The beauty of it all is when the people gather as one voice; this is when holiness happens.(177-8)

Amen to that lovely image.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Paul and the Christian Life (2) JDG Dunn

J D G Dunn has the opening chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective edited by Scot McKnight and Joe Modica and published by Baker Academic last month.

9780801049767Just to reiterate the context: the big question of this book is how does Paul the Jew – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel? What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?

Back in the early 80s Dunn was the guy who coined the term the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul and is one of the triumvirate of key NPP scholars (E P Sanders and N T Wright being the other two).

Dunn has written hundreds of thousands of words related to Paul – his letters, theology and life. He has several publications related to Galatians in particular and this essay is in a sense a distillation of that previous work. It is, dare I say, surprisingly untechnical and straightforward. The heavy lifting has all been done elsewhere; here Dunn is in effect doing an extended Bible study on Galatians as a guide to how Paul sees the Christian life.

One obvious fact: faith (pistis) and Spirit (pneuma) are two words which are peppered throughout the letter (both appearing over 20 times). They point to how faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit are, for Paul, absolutely central to the Christian life. From this opening platform, Dunn unpacks each in turn.

First, faith. For someone who has, at times, been accused of undermining Reformation truth of justification by faith alone, it is striking (and probably no coincidence) how this chapter is an extended articulation and robust defence of that doctrine.

He refers to Gal 2:15-16 and Paul and Peter’s clash at Antioch

We are Jews by nature and not “Gentile sinners,” knowing that no human being
is justified by works of the law but only through faith in Jesus Christ, and we
have believed in Christ Jesus, in order that we might be justified by faith in
Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no flesh
be justified.

Paul opposed Peter because ‘To demand “works of the law” in addition to faith, as a necessary expression of faith, was to destroy the fundamental role of faith.’ (7).

And further

This was where Paul drew the line. Becoming a member of the people of God (Israel) was not primarily what the gospel was about. Rather, the gospel was primarily about being related to God through Christ—being a member of Christ. To be justified before God, only faith in Christ was required. To require any more was to undermine that central gospel affirmation. (7)

This point is hammered home repeatedly in the letter, so much so that Dunn concludes

To make clear the sole primacy of faith—faith, yes, as expressed in baptism and “working through love,” but faith as the sole means and medium through which the justifying relation with Christ is established and sustained—was Paul’s principal concern in writing to the Galatians, and that should never be forgotten or downplayed. That the Christian life, as “Christian,” is a life of faith, faith in Christ, from start to finish, is the primary message of Galatians. (10)

You can’t get much more classically sola fide than that ….

But if justification is by faith alone, that justifying faith is never separated from the other great theme of Galatians – the work of the Spirit. Dunn calls this the counterpart to faith.

A quick aside here – not surprisingly it is the role of the Spirit that emerges as one of the consistent themes of the book across the various essays. My chapter is called ‘The New Perspective and the Christian Life: Solus Spiritus‘, Timothy Gombis’s one is ‘Participation in the New Creation People of God in Christ by the Spirit’. The authors submitted chapters completely independently, so its interesting that when Dunn says

“By faith alone” could be matched by the equivalent phrase “by Spirit alone” as the heart of Paul’s gospel. The outworkings of each should never be allowed to diminish or confuse the primacy of each. (11)

it mirrors a point I make in my chapter that

one could wish that another sola had been articulated at the Reformation—solus Spiritus—for the Christian life is life in the Spirit from beginning to end. (95)

After tracing a theology of the Spirit in the letter, Dunn concludes, with reference to Galatians 6:8 (“Those who sow to their own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption; but those who sow to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life”) that

Paul confirms that for him the most important aspect in the process of becoming a Christian was the fact that he and they had received the Spirit. It was the entrance of the Spirit into their lives which made the vital difference and departure from a life dominated by self-service. It was the work of the Spirit in their lives which ensured the inheritance of eternal life. Beside that, everything else was secondary. And anything which distracted from or confused that central offer and promise of the gospel was a corruption of and distraction from the gospel. If the Christian life began with the reception of the Spirit, then it was also to be lived in accordance with the Spirit.

The big problem in Galatians is that the ‘true mark’ of being a Christian was being measured by ‘works of Torah’ – like the physical mark of circumcision. This was distracting and detracting from the radical gospel. Dunn puts it this way

There is no way of being Christian, according to Galatians, other than faith-and-Spirit working through love. (15)

What, do you think, are contemporary distractions and detractions from this ‘simple’ gospel?




The call of the cross

A Good Friday Reflection

Without the croMonasterboice High Crossss, Christians have nothing whatsoever distinctive to say.

The cross is at the heart of all truly Christian theology. The Christian life is a life lived under the shadow of the cross.

The gospels can be described as passion narratives with extended introductions. While you might be uneasy with this (does it not relegate Jesus’ birth, life and preaching of the kingdom to secondary importance?) the fact is that the birth, life and teaching of Jesus are all cross-directed. They lose all sense and coherence without the cross.

Matthew captures the developing conflict with the authorities which leads to his climatic abandonment and death. All happening to fulfil the words of the prophets.

Mark consistently talks of discipleship in terms of suffering and the way of the cross  (8:34-8). Jesus’ own clear self-understanding of his mission is famously summed up in 10:45 where he comes not to be served but to give his life a ‘ransom for many’ – a reference to the servant of Isaiah in 52:13-53:12.

Matthew also links to Isaiah 53, a profoundly important framework for the mission of the Messiah (Matt. 8:17; 12:17-21).

Luke describes Jesus setting his face to Jerusalem, the place of his death and the focus of mission (9:51).

John opens with Jesus ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (1:29). His whole gospel is focused on the death (and glorification) of the Christ. His link to Passover is echoed by Paul who calls Jesus ‘our Passover lamb’ (1 Cor 5:7). Here is the cross as sacrifice for sin, a theme expanded on at length in the book of Hebrews.

Paul wants to know nothing but know nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 1:1-2). He talks of Christ crucified being the power and wisdom of God. While Jews look for miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, ‘we preach Christ crucified’ (1 Cor 1:18-25).

The foundational act of fellowship within the early Christian communities is a meal to remember and proclaim Christ’s death (1 Cor 11:26). In terms of the gospel, it is of first importance that Christ ‘died for our sins’ (1 Cor. 15:1-5). To be a Christian at all means to be ‘baptised into his death’ (Roms. 6:3). If Paul is to boast in anything, he will only boast in the cross of Christ (Gal. 6:14).

Take Colossians 2: 13-15. It is at the cross that sin is atoned for and forgiveness achieved. It is at the cross that condemnation and judgement are dealt with through Christ our substitute taking the penalty for sin. It is at the cross that a decisive victory is won over the powers and authorities opposed to the reconciling work of God.

“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

Or back to Corinthians: It is at the cross that the rulers of this age are ‘outsmarted’ – they did not comprehend the wisdom of God seen in the mystery of the cross, “the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:7-8?)

Take Romans 5:1-11: It is the cross which supremely reveals the depth of the love of God “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It is the cross which speaks of the immeasurable grace of God since we are powerless to save ourselves. It is the cross which leads to justification (being declared righteous) and reconciliation (peace with God). It is the death of Christ which saves us from God’s wrath.

Yes, yes, the cross must never be separated from the resurrection – otherwise it remains a brutal form of execution; a place of death and despair. Yes, the cross lead to Pentecost where the victory won at Golgotha leads to the outpouring of the promised Spirit.

But the Scriptures are insistent that something unique happened at the cross. The texts are packed full of images and stories and metaphors of what went on there – and quite rightly we should unpack and explore each one. But the very diversity of images should tell us something. No-one image or picture or theme can neatly capture the cross. We need so many of them because what happened at the cross is something that is profoundly mysterious and beyond easy explanation.

So let’s never get so wrapped up in debates about how the cross works, or what it achieves, that we miss what the cross of Christ calls us to.

It calls us to worship, to adoration, to thanksgiving, to humility, to self-giving lives lived to honour God. It calls us to die to ourselves and live for him. It calls us to be willing to suffer for our faith. It calls us to give up power and control and manipulation as routes to ‘success in ministry’. It certainly calls us to reject violence as followers of a crucified Messiah. It calls us to daily repentance and fresh seeking of the generous grace of God. It calls to wholehearted love of the one who first loved us.

Keller, gospel and Center Church 3

What would you say it means to ‘think with a Christian mind’ (Rom 12:1-2??).

Tim Keller doesn’t use this language in chapter 3 of Center Church, but this is the sort of question he is answering. His contention is that ‘The Gospel Affects Everything’.

He means by this that, while the gospel is a ‘set of truths to understand and believe’, those truths are more like a set of lenses by which to view all of life (after Lesslie Newbigin).

The gospel leads to a whole new way of thinking and of living. The implications of the gospel are endless. Keller gives a three part gospel outline and follows with implications.

  1. The Incarnation and the Upside-Down Aspect of the Gospel

There is a complete reversal of the world’s attitudes in the gospel story. The first shall be last; the servant king; victory in death; the poor, meek and humble are above the rich and satisfied. This leads to a radical and alternative gospel community in which racial superiority, pride in achievement and wealth, seeking after power and prestige are all alien.

2. The Atonement and the Inside-Out Aspect of the Gospel

The gospel negates human pride and legalism. It works from the inside-out not the outside-in. It is not a matter of external behaviour earning God’s pleasure. It is knowing God’s unmerited grace and living a life of thankfulness and joy in response. This revolutionises ‘how we relate to God, to ourselves and to others on the outside.’

3. The Resurrection and the Forward-Aspect of the Gospel

Christians live in light of future hope of new creation and a world healed of all sin and brokenness. The basis of this hope is the resurrection of Jesus. This has all sorts of implications for how we now live. For evangelism and gospelling in light of the future coming of the King; for helping the poor and working for justice since God wills an end to all injustice; working for human flourishing since God is the maker of all things.

Gospel implications for church life

This sort of broad gospel vision will lead a ‘center-church’ to become a hybrid of:

An evangelical-charismatic church which stresses personal conversion, grace, evangelism, church planting and experience of God’s renewal.

An Anabaptist peace church which stresses community, radical giving, spiritual disciplines, racial reconciliation and living with the poor

A Kupyerian / mainline denominational church which stresses the welfare of the city, civic involvement, cultural engagement and seeing work as vocation.

And you can only respect and give thanks for Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian’s clear vision here and how it has been put into practice in New York. Keller rightly has serious street cred when it comes to gospel ministry.

Gospel implications for the Christian life

In quite a swathe of evangelicalism, the gospel is like an entry card for beginners who then move on to deeper things. Keller says no, the gospel is that which transforms all of life and it takes a lifetime of discipleship and growth in wisdom to live out the implications of the gospel.

Keller’s consistent framework is how gospel grace speaks an alternative story to that of moralism / legalism / religion OR relativism / irreligion / liberalism. The gospel is a third way between the two.

A list of examples he talks about is below;  I’ll just unpack a couple.

Discouragement and depression:

Love and relationships:  Moralism can make love a source of self-image and worth. Relativism can reduce love to partnership for mutual benefit. You relate as long as it does not cost. Rather, the gospel calls us to self-sacrifical love, but not out of a need to earn approval or help our self-image. We can love enough to confront, yet stay with the person when it does not benefit us.

Sexuality: Moralism can see sex as shameful and dirty. Relativism can see it as an appetite to be sated. The gospel sees it in terms of self-giving unconditional love in the context of completely giving ourselves to another in terms of our whole lives – legally, socially, personally. So “sex is to be shared only in a totally committed, permanent relationship of marriage.” (40)



Race and culture


Human Authority

Guilt and self-image

Joy and Humor: legalism eats away at joy in an anxious need to perform rightly. Relativism tends towards pessimism since there is no higher purpose or ultimate justice. But the gospel grace leads to daily thankfulness, joy in everyday life and a deep sense of humility. We don’t need to take ourselves too seriously.

Attitudes toward class

Some Comments

Keller’s gospel framework is primarily grace versus religion or irreligion. It is applied thoughtfully and graciously to all of life. It is consistently evangelistic and personal. It ties in to deeply Christian themes of humility and grace.

This said, plus Keller’s wonderful ministry in New York and far beyond, it seems totally impertinent for a Joe Soap like me to offer critique. So, feeling like a kid in a first-year art class pontificating on the imperfections in Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, here are a couple of areas Keller doesn’t seem to engage with.

One startling omission in three chapters on ‘Gospel Theology’ is the good news that Jesus is the Lord. Lord is one of the most important descriptions of Jesus in the NT. The climax of Peter’s speech in Acts 2 is that the gospel is that Jesus is the risen Messiah and reigning Lord. It is Paul’s joyful affirmation of the gospel in Romans 1:1-4 and the focus of eschatological hope in Phil 2:5-11 when every knee will bow before him. This puts the person of Jesus (Christology) at the heart of the gospel

There is also literally (I think) no mention in 3 chapters summarising the gospel of the Holy Spirit. For Keller, gospel is salvation by grace. It is an understanding of grace that leads to a life lived between ‘religion’ and ‘irreligion’. What I find surprising (especially after listening to his great preaching on Galatians 5 some time back) is that he gives the impression that this is merely a rational process. If we get our thinking on gospel right – then the rest falls into place.

I know he doesn’t believe this, but that’s the impression you’d get if you were coming to this cold. The role of the Spirit in living a gospel life is not mentioned. But when you read the gospels and Acts, a vital part of the good news is the outpouring of the Spirit in light of the victory won at the cross and resurrection of the Son.

Bottom line point of difference: the gospel is best not equated with justification by faith. JoF is a result of the gospel, not the gospel itself.  The gospel is not a set of linear propositions. It is a proclamation of the biblical narrative that finds fulfilment in the life, death, resurrection, ascension and coming return of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, the Son of God and living Lord. It calls for faith in Jesus, repentance (and baptism). And the blessings of faith in Christ lead to justification / reconciliation / redemption / sacrifice and so on. As Michael Bird says, the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel, it is not the gospel itself.

Comments, as ever, welcome