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.

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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.

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)

Family

Self-control

Race and culture

Witness

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