Yes, You Can Learn New Testament Greek

Until the Reformation, it was not standard practice for clergy to learn the original languages of the Scriptures. This was in part due to the long reign of Jerome’s Vulgate translation into Latin that was the officially endorsed version of the Roman Catholic Church. Among Protestant pastors, learning Hebrew and Greek is common and often required, but this regard for the importance of the biblical text in its original languages has not filtered through to Christians on the other side of the pulpit. I want to say that the combination of centuries of working with the text and rigorous scholarship have given us English translations in which we can have a very high degree of trust. No one should think that because they don’t know Hebrew or Greek, they cannot understand God’s word. I recently saw a tweet where someone said “Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your bride through a veil.” This is foolish and ignores the work of translators and scholars who have worked hard to give us accurate translations. In English, we have an embarrassment of riches.

However, for those who want to explore the original languages, I want to encourage you that it has in fact never been easier to do so. What I write here is specific to Greek, but I think it would hold true for Hebrew as well. The changes to content delivery over the past several years have led to a “democratization” of learning. There is no need to sit in a class at a fixed time to listen to lecture on a topic. This has been a great boon for learning in general, and those learning Greek can use this to great advantage.

I share the methods and materials I have used, but as the saying goes, “Your mileage may vary.”

William Mounce: Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar. Mounce’s textbook has been a standard for years, and he has honed the material through several editions, and proved it through classroom instruction. It is an approachable, easy to follow presentation of the grammar of Greek. Mounce has a complete system of other books (A Morphology of Biblical Greek) and flashcards to learn vocabulary. I use the flashcards and recommend them.

Daniel Wallace: Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Wallace’s book is a 2nd year text, as the name indicates, going beyond grammar and paradigms and moving on to syntax—usage of the language. Wallace’s mantra is “syntax is the backbone of exegesis.” Learning how the NT writers used the language is just as important as being able to recognize forms. This is a tome of some 860 pages, so it functions as a reference as well as an instructional manual.

Both Mounce and Wallace have accompanying workbooks, which are very important and useful.

Zondervan Academic Videos.

Both Mounce and Wallace have lectures working through their textbooks. I purchased these several years ago (they come through Vimeo) and at the time, they were downloadable. Zondervan appears to have changed the model somewhat. Mounce’s lectures are broken into two separate courses now, and they are no longer downloadable (so you need an internet connection) In the case of Mounce anyway, they also now have a subscription model, so you get access for a yearly fee. That’s unfortunate, because you have keep paying. But the videos are valuable because you can watch as many times as you want, go back and review what you don’t understand. From time to time, Zondervan will offer a sale for these, so you can keep an eye out for that.


With the Mounce text, there are several teachers who have put their lectures out on Youtube, which are of course free. So even if you don’t want to pay for the Vimeo lectures, there are still options. In addition to going through each chapter of textbook, there are a plethora of videos out there covering various topics of New Testament Greek. The problem is not finding material, it is finding time for it.


Quizlet is an online flashcard app (and phone app) that you can use to create custom flashcards of things you want to drill, or you can use any of the already-created flashcard sets that are out there. One nice feature of Quizlet is, if you start to create your own set, and type in, for example “Present Active Indicative,” Quizlet will instantly search all sets it has and offer you a card or a definition you can incorporate.

The Greek New Testament Reader web site is one of the best resources learners of Greek can use. It is a free site, put out by the folks who created the Logos Bible software. GNT Reader is great because it offers parsing of every word in the NT. If you don’t know a word, you can click on it, and it will tell you, for example, “Noun: Genitive Masculine Plural 144 occurrences.” This occurrence number is a clickable link that will show you where else this word is used.

The search function is great because it allows you to search for specific grammatical constructions.  If, for example, you wanted to drill yourself on participles, you can search for these, by tense, voice, etc. I have then used this to create flashcards on Quizlet.

Consistency is important, and as repetition is the law of learning, you have to keep using the language, keep reading. I’ve achieved what I would call “functionality” in the language. I can read the Greek NT without depending an interlinear. My goal is to keep going. There are lists online of the relative difficulty of the grammar in the NT. Generally speaking, the Johannine writings are the easiest Greek, so starting with these, you can boost your confidence and begin using the language for the most important reason: to know God’s Word and the Lord Jesus better.


Antinomianism Is A Word Not Found In Scripture

Freedom from the law is not something to look at warily.

The words “antinomian” and “antinomianism” are polemical terms, and as is often the case, they carry connotations. But does a look at what’s claimed with these words stand up to scrutiny? A dictionary definition says an antinomian is “one who holds that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation.”[i] The definition relies on history more than Scripture for this explanation. All should agree that we are saved by faith alone, apart from the law, but it isn’t quite accurate to say the law is of no use. Paul says “through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” It is a rule—a canon, or yardstick which shows mankind how far short we fall. But the definition also refers to the “moral law,” a concept from historical theology, but which can’t be found in Scripture.

The unity of the law is everywhere throughout the Old Testament, but also in the New. When Paul gives his explanations of the law in both Romans and Galatians, he never qualifies to say “the moral law” or to say as some seem to suggest, “You also have died to the civil and ceremonial law.” Paul always treats the law as a whole. Indeed, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal 3:10, citing Deut. 27:26)

This is where the polemical nature of antinomianism enters in. Those who use the term don’t accuse opponents of not keeping the civil or ceremonial law, but of diminishing or dismissing the “moral law.” But here, too, there is sometimes disagreement on what makes up the moral law. Does it include the Sabbath commandment? Or is that part of the ceremonial law? If it does include it, and we are going to observe it, it means we will do no work on Saturdays? For there never was any change of the Sabbath day. To suggest that we “keep the Sabbath” by attending Sunday worship is again, a product of history, but not of Scripture.

Many have objected that Paul cites several of the Ten Commandments in his epistles, such as in Romans 13.

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom 13:8-10)

But has Paul said “You are obligated to keep these”? Rather, he has in fact pointed the believers to love—not as the keeping of the law, but as the fulfilment of it. Our obligation, that which we owe, is to love. If we focus on this, keeping the law is not something in our purview. Is it “antinomianism” to point believers to the higher standard of God’s love, rather than the law given at Sinai? Is it an encouragement to sin to point believers to the example of Jesus rather than commands given under the old covenant?

Two other observations show that the common accusations of “antinomian” are without merit. The first are the explicit statements the apostle Paul makes that tell believers they are not under law. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Rom 6:14), and also “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” (Gal 5:18.) The word antinomian does not actually appear in the New Testament, however, the words “hyponomian,” (ὑπὸ νόμον) to be under the law, do appear. It is that which Paul says believers are not. To be “not under law” means to be free of both condemnation and obligation. Some want to retain obligation even as they insist that condemnation is gone. Do human laws work this way? If a murderer would face no consequences whatsoever from the state, would anyone credibly claim that the state insists its citizens have an obligation to obey the law against murder?

The other claim is that antinomianism somehow encourages us to sin, because it dismisses God’s standards as a curb on our sinful nature. But here, too, Paul says the opposite. That is, rather than control sin, the law actually exacerbates our sin! “The law came in to increase the trespass.” (Rom 5:20) And from his own experience Paul testifies that the law aroused sin in him. “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Rom 7:7) The law as a guardrail, or in some way helpful as a curb to our sinful desire is therefore not a valid argument. Paul similarly argued in Romans 6:14 that the way sin gains mastery or dominion over a person is because they are under obligation to the law.

To say believers are free from the law is not to say we are free to sin, nor is it to say that we have cast off righteousness or the pursuit of Christlikeness. If walking by the Spirit, and thus not being under law means I am “antinomian,” then I count myself happy to be in apostolic company. For although the word antinomian wasn’t used, a form of the accusation seems to have been leveled at Paul by who misunderstood his extolling grace above law. “And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying.” Rom 3:8. Antinomianism is a hollow accusation because the law can’t take us to conformity to Jesus. It isn’t inconsistent with where we are called, but we pass it on the way to putting on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 13:14) Love, not law is our measure and guide.

[i] Merriam-Webster online

God’s Wrath Satisified: What Propitiation Accomplished

In my last post I looked at the fact of God’s wrath at sin, and showed that in both testaments, the teaching of Scripture is clear that God is justly angry at sin and evil. That he expresses his wrath against sin and sinners is also the consistent teaching of the Bible.

What, then, does Scripture mean when it speaks of propitiation?

It may be that the determining factor in one’s view of the topic is what one sees as included in the word propitiation. Does it involve expiation, cleansing of sin only? Or, does propitiation include the idea of satisfaction or appeasement of God’s wrath? If it is expiation alone—including no thought of God’s wrath—then the logical question is, what becomes of that wrath? What has happened to the expression of divine anger against rebellion and sin, and against sinners? A view that says cleansing from sin has no thought of God’s anger has no biblical answer these questions.

The chastisement of our peace

A pastor who does not believe God’s wrath is involved in our salvation recently asked, “Where does the Bible say God’s wrath was poured out on Jesus?” We find the answer to this in several places,  in both testaments, but chief among them may be Isaiah 53. The common consensus of the church is that the suffering servant of Isaiah is indeed the Lord Jesus. Both Matthew’s gospel and Peter’s first epistle cite passages from Isaiah 53, applying them to Jesus.

In the passage, verse 5 reads “upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace.” The word chastisement is a noun that is linked to a verb that means to chastise with blows, to punish. If the passage does not find its fulfillment in Jesus, who then would it apply to? And if what the passage refers to as chastisement and punishment that brings us peace does not include the satisfaction of God’s anger at sin, what possible reason is there for chastisement? Other words we find in the passage are stricken, smitten. Are we to understand that the striking of him is only at the hands of men? That God was not  active in the cross? Some have suggested it was only man’s wrath against Christ on the cross, but this denies God’s sovereignty and, again, his just anger at sin. Isaiah 53 shows God’s anger at sin is propitiated, satisfied, through the suffering and chastisement brought upon his Son. Peace comes to us only because punishment for sin came to him.

When we turn to the New Testament, the idea of propitiation is there as well. The most prominent passage is Romans 3:23-25:

“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

The importance of this passage includes the fact that propitiation itself includes the idea of wrath turned away. It is not simply forgiveness, but forgiveness because of an offering and an offering that satisfies God’s just wrath against sin. In the previous century, C. H. Dodd caused a stir with his suggestion that propitiation is only expiation, with no thought of God’s wrath. Dodd essentially “de-divinized” the wrath of God, suggesting that sin is the cause, disaster the effect. But Dodd changes wrath to something not unlike karma. In the process, he removes God himself from it, no longer is he the holy One who is offended by sin and evil.

But several scholars show that Dodd’s analysis has no lexical nor contextual basis. Leon Morris notes, “If the particular forgiveness or purging of sin is one which involves, as a necessary feature, the putting away of the divine wrath, then it is idle to maintain that the word has been eviscerated of propitiation. Dodd totally ignores the fact that in many passages there is explicit mention of the putting away of God’s anger, and accordingly his conclusions cannot be accepted without serious modification.”[1]

Donald Guthrie likewise comments,

“We cannot properly appreciate the idea of propitiation in Paul’s thought without setting it alongside his teaching on the wrath of God (ὀργὴ). It is significant, for instance, that Dodd evaporates from the idea of wrath all thought of anger. For him the wrath of God describes ‘an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe’. He admits that this depersonalizes it, but justifies this as a development away from the more primitive concept of a God who strikes terror into men. This, however, weakens Paul’s strong comparison between the revelation of the righteousness and wrath of God (cf. Rom. 1:17, 18)”[2]

Guthrie highlights what I suspect may also be in the thought of those today who deny God’s wrath poured out on Jesus: it is a “primitive” concept of God, an angry deity whom worshipers must mollify. They find it inconsistent with the loving God revealed in Jesus. Such a view likely comes from giving too much weight to scholarship that depicts YHWH as but another tribal deity, not unlike the gods of the nations surrounding Israel. And just as those gods had to be appeased through sacrifice, so Israel imbibed this idea. But that, too, will not square with the revelation in Scripture. It ignores the descriptions of God as both merciful and holy, loving and righteous, and critically, as not like the gods of the nations.

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin

The New Testament revelation of Christ as our substitute, our sacrifice for sin is also a statement of God’s wrath poured out on Jesus. 2 Cor 5:21 says “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

In saying that God has made Jesus “to be sin,” the apostle is also saying with the uniform testimony of all the prophets, that God directs his wrath against sin. In making Jesus “to be sin” God is setting him forth as the one who absorbs and receives the just wrath of God for sin. This is also taught in Gal 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” It is not coherent to suggest that the curse that came with breaking the law does not include divine displeasure—wrath and anger. The extensive curses outlined in Deuteronomy 28 are incomprehensible if God is not angry at the disobedience of Israel. In saying Jesus absorbed this curse, Paul is saying that God’s poured out his wrath against sin on Jesus.

Finally, the idea of reconciliation presupposes enmity between parties. Scripture depicts mankind as enemies of God, in need of reconciliation. Paul says in Ephesians 2:3 as “children of wrath.” Greek scholar Daniel Wallace refers to this as a “genitive of destination, aka direction. Children of wrath ( = ‘children destined for wrath’)”.[3]

Believers, however, are those who do not have the wrath of God abiding on them, and the reason is because Jesus took that wrath on the cross, he absorbed the curse. This is propitiation; not only the forgiveness of sin, but forgiveness because God’s wrath is satisfied. The close link between sin and God’s wrath demonstrates that when God forgives sin, it is because of an offering that satisfies his just wrath against sin. To deny this is part of propitiation is to go against the witness of both testaments.

The other aspect of propitiation in Scripture is that, unlike pagan ideas, Paul notes that God himself set forth the Lord Jesus as the propitiation for our sins. It is he who provides the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. It is God himself who provides the satisfaction for his own rightful anger against sin and sinners. We gain nothing by a view that says God’s salvation includes nothing of satisfaction for his wrath against sin, but we lose plenty. It introduces a soft Marcionism to suggest some inconsistency between a holy God and a loving God. Indeed, when we come to the New Testament, God’s wrath and God’s love are both amplified, and both are displayed in the cross.

[1] Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1965), 156-157.

[2] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), 469.

[3] Daniel  B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1996), 101.

Why Is Propitiation Needed? The Wrath of God For Sin

In some of the various theories of the atonement, wrath as a concept has fallen away as having any part in what God is doing. It doesn’t seem to be only a question of viewing the atonement under a Christus Victor model, or a satisfaction model.  Rather, it is that wrath and judgement upon sin are seen as odious ideas—that for God, who is love, to express wrath would be inconsistent with his nature and being. (I am not aware of anyone who who holds to penal substitutionary atonement who does not also affirm God’s wrath is poured out on Jesus on the cross, something I address in the next  post.)
The cross, salvation, and indeed, forgiveness of sins itself does not make biblical sense if God has no wrath against sin. To see the need for propitiation requires an understanding of God’s view of sin, and of his wrath against it.

The wrath of God in the Old Testament

The Hebrew Bible is replete with examples of God’s wrath directed against sin. Leon Morris, in his book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, notes

“To the men of the Old Testament the wrath of God is both very real and very serious. God is not thought of as capriciously angry (like the deities of the heathen), but, because He is a moral Being, His anger is directed towards wrongdoing in any shape or form.
There are more than twenty words used to express ‘wrath’ as it applies to Yahweh (in addition to a number of other words which occur only with reference to human anger.)
There is a consistency about the wrath of God in the Old Testament. It is no capricious passion, but the stern reaction of the divine nature towards evil. It is aroused only and inevitably by sin.[1]

As Morris describes, God’s wrath is always just—never arising out of pique or lack of self-control. As D. A. Carson has said, “it is not simply God losing his temper.” Secondly, that it is a right response of God toward sin and evil, consistent with his holiness. To say it would be inconsistent for a loving God to show wrath against sin is to say that God is not free in his person, and the attributes Scripture portrays him to have are incompatible. In short, such a view impoverishes the nature of God. That God, who is love, can likewise exercise wrath against sin is clear by several passages of Scripture.

When Moses is granted by God to see but a portion of his being, God announces his name as he passes by.
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Exodus 34:6-7.

Indeed, YHWH is slow to anger, and he is abounding in steadfast love, but he does have anger against the guilty. This is frequent and pervasive throughout the Old Testament.
“if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, so as to provoke him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today” Deut. 4:25-26.

“And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.” Deut 31:29.

O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath. Ps. 6:1

Yet he, being compassionate,
atoned for their iniquity
and did not destroy them;
he restrained his anger often
and did not stir up all his wrath. Ps. 78:38

For my name’s sake I defer my anger;
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
that I may not cut you off. Is. 48:9

This is small sampling of the many places the Old Testament speaks of God’s wrath and anger, and that it is directed against sin. But it is also clear that God provided a means of atonement in the sacrifices he ordained.

The entire cultus of the nation of Israel is set forth with a view to atonement, that is, that pardon for sin, cleansing from iniquity is because of an offering. This is true from the opening of Leviticus, and the burnt offering. “He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” Lev. 1:4. Here there is substitution, acceptance and atonement. The acceptance of the worshiper is because atonement has been made, and atonement is because of the death of the sacrifice, and the offering of its blood. When the instructions for the sin offering are given, it is similar language. “As he did with the bull of the sin offering, so shall he do with this. And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.” Lev 4:20.

The blood of the offering is put on the horns of the altar, and poured out at the base of it.
God is propitiated through the sacrifices he has ordained. Someone may ask where the idea of wrath enters in. Sin, as we have seen, is the cause of God’s wrath. Sin atoned for, an offering for sin is the reason God is propitiated, the reason his wrath is no more against the offender.

The Wrath of God in the New Testament

From the opening of the Gospels, John the Baptist asks the Pharisees who warned them to flee from the wrath to come. Jesus, speaking of the tribulation to come upon Israel said, “For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people.” Luke 21:23. In John’s gospel, he ends the 3rd chapter with a statement of logical simplicity: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” The wrath of God is upon sinners because they sin, entirely consistent with what the Old Testament witnesses.

When we come to the epistles, Romans 1-3 is in one sense an extended argument that God’s wrath is justly directed against man for their sin. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” 1:18. Is is notable that this statement comes after Paul’s great gospel announcement, that he is not ashamed of the gospel, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.” There is a connection of revelation here. The gospel reveals God’s righteousness, and God’s wrath is revealed against unrighteousness. These two go together, as Mark Seifrid notes.

“This divine dispute with humanity provides the background to Paul’s announcement of the justifying work of the gospel in Romans 1:16-17. Juxtaposed to the ‘righteousness of God’ in 1:17 stands the ‘revelation of God’s wrath’ in 1:18. Although some have appealed to the parallelism between the two expressions as an indication that they represent opposing activities of God, Paul’s subsequent argument shows that he regards them as interdependent. In correspondence with its biblical background, for Paul God’s saving righteousness does not abrogate his righteous judgment against the world, but brings it to completion.”[2]

In other words, the exercise of wrath against sin forms part of the gospel for Paul. The subsequent arguments in Romans will show this. “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” 2:5

“what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world?” 3:5-6.

I could cite other passages from the New Testament. Much of 2 Thessalonians is taken up with the theme of God’s coming wrath, “inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God” 2 Thess 1:9. The bulk of Revelation deals with this theme, and even if one takes it to be entirely symbolic or allegorical, it would in now way diminish the idea of God’s wrath directed against sin and sinners. The New Testament, like the Old, shows a consistency in the wrath of God against sin. Indeed, if there is no wrath against sin, the necessity of deliverance, of propitiation is unclear.
Next, I look at the propitiation God provided in Christ, when he absorbed God’s wrath.

[1] Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross3rd Ed., (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1965), 149-150.

[2] Mark Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification. NSBT.
(Downers Grove: Apollos, 2000), 48.

On What is Christian Righteousness Based?

My last post looked at the question of whether righteousness requires the law for a properly biblical understanding of it. I concluded that Scripture shows examples of righteousness before the law’s arrival, and outside the ethnic boundaries of its recipients (Israel.) Given this, what then is the basis for God to declare believers in Jesus as righteous? Must there be some foundation that is real, that ties back to the accomplishment of Jesus in his law-keeping. As one interlocutor asked:

What is this righteousness? Where does it come from? Is it just a declaration? Or is it an actual righteousness? If the latter, how is it defined.

This presents the question in a false dichotomy. Either righteousness is actual or it is only a declaration, (not genuine.) But it places conditions on God’s reckoning that are unwarranted. God, uniquely, is the one who creates ex nihilo—out of nothing, if he so chooses. As we read from the start of Genesis, “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” God spoke the world into existence. When it comes to Abraham and the birth of Isaac, it is a similar thing. “as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Rom 4:17

In short, had God determined to base our righteousness on his declaration alone—it would be entirely valid for him to do so, it would be every bit a real righteousness. We cannot say that it would not accord with his justice, because who but God himself can define what is just? It is his prerogative to declare something so, to speak it into existence.

But, we can look beyond this to see that the righteousness we have is in fact based on something, and that is the death of Jesus.  As a preliminary, it is important to note that justification is the same as a declaration of righteousness. That is, one who is justified is righteous. In his book Perspectives Old and New: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics Stephen Westerholm has engaged in a tongue in cheek exercise to demonstrate this.

Justification = Righteousness applied

“When God says “Let there be,” there is. When we say “Let there be,” we may, for the sake of argument, imagine that there is.

“Let there be an (indeclinable) English adjective ‘dikaios’ whose occurrence corresponds strictly with that of the Greek adjective δικαιος  in the letters of Paul. And let there be an English noun ‘dikaiosness’ and an English verb “dikaiosify” (passive: ‘to be dikaiosified’) whose occurrence corresponds precisely with that of the Greek words δικαιοσύνη and δικαιόω (passive δικαιόομαι), respectively, in Paul’s writings. Greek ἄδικος will then be ‘undikaios’; ἀδικία, ‘undikaiosness.'”[1]

In subsequent pages of the book, Westerholm uses these terms such as “having been dikaiosified by Christ’s blood.” Westerholm’s patois shows the connection between justify and righteous that is apparent in Greek, but hidden in English. This becomes important when we consider the statements Paul makes about the basis of our justification.  Taking Romans texts in order, Paul says “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Rom 3:23-24. We are made righteous by his grace, as a gift. It is freely given. A few verses on, he says “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Here, we are justified—dikaiosified—by faith apart from works of the law. This is one of the many spots where Paul disavows any place for law, works of the law, or keeping of the law as having a part in justification.

I have heard the objection: “Of course, but Paul is speaking of our keeping of the law, of our works, which will always be insufficient.” But where does Paul ever say that it is Christ’s law-keeping that forms the basis of our right standing before God? N.B., that Jesus lived a sinless life and that “he offered himself without blemish to God” is a given. But this is not at all the same as saying that his keeping of the Mosaic law forms the basis of the righteousness God imputes to us. Paul doesn’t say that the reason God is able to gift his righteousness to us is because he can look at the keeping of the law by Jesus as providing the real and substantive basis for righteousness. In fact, in several places he denies that law as a principle, as a category, has any role in justification. Gal 3:21 is a clear reference. “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.”

A bit before this, Paul also said “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” Gal 2:21. As I noted in the last post, Pau; makes no exceptions here, doesn’t say “except, of course, for Christ’s law-keeping. This would revise Paul as saying “I do not nullify the grace of God, for since righteousness comes by his keeping of the law, he died to apply that law-keeping to us.” But that is of course very far afield of what the apostle actually says.

Continuing on in Romans, Paul says “It [righteousness] will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Rom 4:24-25. Here, again, we have righteousness credited to us by faith, for those who believe, and at the end of the verse, that Jesus was raised for our justification, for our righteousness. It is, I think, uncontroversial that the resurrection of Jesus is a necessity for eternal life. All who I interact with on this topic agree with this.

Nothing is changed if we view faith only as the instrument of our justification, the means by which justification is applied to us. It still does not mean that law forms the basis of the righteousness God credits to us.

Made righteous by His blood

Finally, Romans 5:9 “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” His blood is the ground of our justification, our righteousness. It is plain that what Paul refers to here is the death of Jesus, for the verse just previous to this says “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Returning to Westerholm, he comments on what he calls “ordinary” dikaiosness and “extraordinary” dikaiosness. Even if you disagree with those designations, what he says about them is borne out by the text.  It would be unsurprising if someone were declared righteous because he kept the law. This would be expected—ordinary. So in Rom 2:13 Paul says “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Of course they would be, they’ve performed what the law required.

“Whereas in 2:13 the dikaiosified are those whose dikaiosness is recognized by God on the basis of what they have done (they are ‘doers of the law’), something quite different must be meant in 5:9 where ‘sinners’ (who have just been contrasted with the person who is dikaios, and, indeed, whose very status as sinners depends on the validity of the unmet requirement of ordinary dikaiosness) are said to be dikaiosified on the basis of Christ’s death.”[2]

This highlighting of the death of Christ points out the one sense in which his law-keeping is imputed to us. The law said “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Deut 27:26, cited in Gal 3:10. And, a bit later, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” His death fulfilled the laws demand, in that he died the death of a law-breaker, though he was sinless. This aspect of his substitution is what is credited to us.

Atonement provides the basis for God’s justice

Mark Seifrid notes that part of God’s justice is the punishment of sin. Paul began Romans by speaking of the wrath of God revealed against unrighteousness. And the cross is a revelation of God’s wrath against sin. “The cross is the prolepsis of that day of judgment, when God’s contention with the world comes to its conclusion. In justifying the sinner God does not set aside his contention with humanity. He brings it to completion in his own Son.”[3] When God justifies sinners who put faith in Christ, he remains just because sin has been atoned for in the person of Christ. He is just and the justifier. This justification is no mere declaration, nothing artificial or contrived about it. It is based on the death of Jesus, the sinless One.

Westerholm’s point, too, is that the righteousness believers have is the “extraordinary” kind, it’s not what one would expect because it is not based on law-keeping, full stop. It is because of the death of Christ. His payment for our sin makes it possible for God to be just, in that he has indeed punished sin in the person of his Son, but he is also the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. This righteousness, this dikaiosness, having no reliance on law is all over Romans, as Paul had announced it in 3:21-22.

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Rom 3:21-22. What God imputes to us is true righteousness, not man-made, not the reward of law-keeping, because is God’s righteousness.

My point in all of this is that when God looks at Christians, he does not say, “Ah, here is one who has kept the law, (in the person of my son) who has done its deeds, and therefore is righteous.” Our righteousness is apart from law. Is such a righteousness not really righteousness because law does not play a part in it? On the contrary, how could God’s own declaration of our right standing before him be anything but real?

[1] Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New: The ‘Lutheran’ Paul and His Critics, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2004), 262.

[2] Westerholm, 274.

[3] Mark Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification. NSBT.
(Downers Grove: Apollos, 2000), 65-66.

Is Law Needed for a Definition of Righteousness?

In recent discussions, I interacted with several other believers around the question of whether the righteousness we have as believers is based on law, specifically a vicarious law-keeping on the part of Jesus. My statement was as follows:

I find no place in Scripture where the believer’s righteousness before God is because of Christ’s law-keeping in our stead. The way in which anything related to the law is imputed to the believer is not his keeping it when we could not, but his death—his taking of its curse.

Several commentators took objection to the statement, and a few indicated they thought I was saying Jesus did not live a righteous life. I am saying nothing of the sort. Most certainly the Lord Jesus lived a sinless life, never wavering from the will of his father. But the common statement that his law-keeping is the basis of our righteousness as believers is what I cannot see in Scripture.

(As an aside, I want to say I am thankful for the courteous and respectful interaction I’ve had with those who disagreed with me. These are faithful brothers in Christ who have been charitable in their demeanor. I have tried to be so as well.)

In this post, I want to address the question of whether we can know what righteousness is apart from the law. Is God’s law a standard required to define righteousness?

Knowing right and wrong without the law

The epistle that speaks more than any other about righteousness is Romans. Those in Rome who were Jews and had come to believe in Jesus surely knew the law, and knew its demands. Paul has referenced them on several occasions in the letter. “What then? Are we Jews any better off?” 3:9. But what about Gentiles, who he has said “do not have the law.” ? (2:14)

Paul affirms that Gentiles on occasion do what the law requires. They do this “by nature,” or as many have called it, “natural law.” There are some things that are obvious, because God has made them plain to everyone. He began the letter saying that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” 1:20.

Gentiles also know, at some level, a difference between right and wrong. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” 2:15. So, Gentiles know right and wrong, righteousness and unrighteousness apart from the law given at Sinai. It is the work of the law, the knowledge of sin, a distinction between right and right—not the law itself that is written on their hearts. Moreover, there are a few things in the law that Gentiles do not know from nature. They cannot know that working on Saturday is against God’s law, nor that to blaspheme the covenant name of Israel’s God, YHWH, is likewise prohibited. This demonstrates that natural law is not equivalent to the revelation at Sinai.

Righteousness before the law was given

One also has to contend with those in biblical history who precede the law, yet who are declared righteous. Abel is near the beginning of Genesis, and while it is only in the New Testament that we get a fuller explanation of his status, he is nevertheless called righteous. “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous.” Heb 11:4. Did Abel have some revelation from God? It is almost certain he did—for he knew that to offer a burnt offering is what would please God. But while Abel was declared righteous, it is difficult to say that the law played a role in this.

There is Noah as well. Genesis 6:8-9 says “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.” Did Noah act according to law? Nothing in Scripture says so. Indeed, the New Testament commentary on him is “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” He is called an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. His forefathers, Abel and Enoch acted in faith, and it is explicitly stated that this is a righteousness that comes by faith. Law is not involved.

The next example is Abraham, the father of the faithful. For the gospel, the importance of his history is difficult to underestimate. When God does give Abraham a revelation—indeed, a promise—which Paul is at pains to contrast with law, Abraham believes God and on this basis is declared righteous. “And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Gen 15:5-6.

Law, then played no role in Abraham’s justification, in his declaration of righteousness. It is purely faith in God’s promise that forms the basis of that justification. He honored God in the belief that what God said, he would do. Abraham’s history shows that believing God’s promise was the reason God declared him righteous, not because Abraham had a law.

When Scripture speaks of law, it almost always refers to those commands given at Mount Sinai, and it is this definition I use. This is important because too many see any imperative in Scripture as law. Michael Horton says  “ ’Law’ as a principle simply refers to anything that God commands. Anything that comes to us from God in the form of imperatives (things to do or not do) is law. This can be in the form of the Ten Commandments, the elaborate specifications of the temple furnishings, Jesus’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, or instructions for life in the Spirit in Galatians 5:16–24.“[1] But this is too broad a definition. Indeed, in Galatians 5, Paul has just finished telling them that they are not under law, and they do not walk by the law, but by the Spirit. Are we to understand Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit as law?  Paul, who surely knew what the law was, gives many instructions to his congregations, but he does not say these are law.

Seeing the law in Eden

For some readers of Scripture, the idea that righteousness must conform to law flows from their understanding of a covenant with Adam, entered into prior to the Fall. This is often called the covenant of works. It is a large topic, and one I have expanded upon here. But the point to note here is that in covenant theology, what Jesus has done in his life is to fulfill the covenant that Adam did not. Now, most certainly Jesus obeyed where Adam failed. But was the substance of Christ’s obedience merely to obey the law that God gave to Adam? The problems here are manifold. First, it is by no means certain that there is even such a thing as the covenant of works. Secondly, if there is a covenant, are the terms of that covenant that Adam was bound to the Ten Commandments, as Westminster insists? This denies the place Scripture assigns to the Decalogue in salvation history. Third, it introduces a principle of works into the gospel. That is, God imputes righteousness to us because—at last—the Second Adam has kept the law, and since the reward of keeping the law is eternal life, believers are granted this because of Christ’s vicarious law-keeping.

That principle is everywhere denied. Paul affirms in Galatians “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” The covenant of works idea is an affirmation that righteousness is indeed through law, albeit kept by another. That is begging the question, assuming what one is trying to prove. Nor will it suffice to explain away Paul’s words to say that he is speaking of sinners, of the ungodly who certainly cannot keep the law, but he is not speaking about Jesus who did keep the law. There is nothing in the New Testament to support this.

Further on in the same epistle, he writes “Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” Again, life (and righteousness, which he here uses interchangeably with life) cannot come from law, for that was never the purpose of the law. This, too, is an explicit denial that God promised Adam life upon the fulfilling of law. Paul does not say this is impossible because of our inability to keep the law, he assigns this inability to the law itself. Such a thing is at cross-purposes with why God gave the law to begin with—to reveal sin, and indeed, to increase the trespass.

The Sermon on the Mount: Righteousness based on law?

Finally, some point to the Sermon on the Mount as evidence that righteousness is measured by law. But in the Sermon, Jesus repeatedly points to a standard that is higher than the law—to his own person and his own words. The law said murder is sin—but I tell you, anger is. The law said adultery is sin—but I tell you, lust is. The law, in other words, was a lower standard than what Jesus was putting forth. In Matt 5:20, Jesus says “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Some have suggested this indicates Jesus has affirmed that a righteousness measurable by law is what is required of disciples, and since we cannot attain it ourselves, it must be imputed to us. (I have commented extensively on the misuse of Matthew 5 by some to insist that obligation to the law still remains firmly in place for believers. But for the most part, those who do so focus on verses 17-18.)

However, I think there are two problems in seeing Matt 5:20 as teaching a righteousness as based on law. First, this comes just before Jesus begins the comparison and contrast between the law and his own call to discipleship. His own instructions to his disciples exceed the law. Were we to say that the law defines righteousness, it doesn’t speak to what Jesus says in the remainder of the Sermon.

Second, it is a stretch to find imputation in Matt 5:20. Nothing in what Jesus says here would suggest that what he has in mind is “since you cannot achieve this kind of righteousness on your own, it will be given to you, imputed to you.” It is reading Paul’s doctrine back into what Jesus says. Now, I am not suggesting we set Jesus against Paul, as some do. That is is not a coherent hermeneutic. Nor am I suggesting that those who point to the Sermon on the Mount as evidence of law-based righteousness are trying to do that. But, I think they may be inadvertently engaging in an odd sort of red-letterism to say that this is the righteousness we must attain, but then injecting the Pauline theme of imputation into the gospel text. In other words, I don’t think the context of the Sermon on the Mount can support the idea that Jesus implies imputation of his own law-keeping as the basis of the righteousness 5:20 calls for.

Scripture presents righteousness as a theme before the law’s introduction, it gives us examples of those declared righteous before the law, and indeed when we come to the New Testament, everywhere describes the righteousness we as Christians have as apart from the law. In the next post, I look at the basis of the righteousness we as Christians have.

[1] Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2006), 174.

Discussing the Atonement As Co-Heirs of Life

In discussions of the atonement, it is far too easy to lapse into lines of reasoning that have an appeal to emotion, or to what seems logical, but for which Scriptural warrant may be lacking. Some of this can be seen even in the terms used through the centuries.

In this debate, there has been an evolution of terms: “limited atonement”, “particular redemption” and “definite atonement.” At various points in history throughout the discussions of the extent of Christ’s atonement, different terms have been used to express the position that Christ died only for the sins of the elect. The origins of the “TULIP” acronym are unclear, but it almost certainly is later than the early contentions over the issue. That is, it did not emerge from Dort or even from the Westminster Assembly. The “L” refers to Limited Atonement, and expresses this position of Christ dying only for the elect, to be specific, that he provided an atonement only for those who will ultimately be saved. For all others, no atonement exists. I am speculating, but it seems that the term garnered some bad press, and in the minds of some may have implied a kind of insufficiency in Christ’s sacrifice.  Adherents of this view would reject this. To be fair, I do not understand their position to at all imply any insufficiency in Christ’s sacrifice. They believe “particular redemption” better expresses God’s intent to redeem for himself a particular people.

Similarly, the term “definite atonement” means to express the purpose of God in redeeming those for whom Christ died. It aims to portray the link between the provision of atonement and application of atonement that those who hold the view believe to be inexorable and unbreakable. I desire to be charitable to those who hold a view different from mine, and thus while I think there is some sense of marketing involved in using “definite atonement” versus “limited atonement,” I will adopt the term as the one preferred by its adherents. Nevertheless, I do not believe the converse of this is logically “indefinite atonement.” Here, too, there has been a fair bit in the defense of definite atonement that tends to applause lines and a kind of playing to the crowd.  For example, “[God] is not glorified when his salvation is reduced to mere opportunity. He is not glorified when his redemption of lost sinners is abridged to being simply a possibility. God is glorified when he is seen and savored and enjoyed for what he actually bestows: saving grace.”[1]

Without question, adherents of definite atonement believe this to be the case, but it falls into the category of opinion—editorial commentary. One can easily rewrite this from another perspective such as “ God is not glorified when his salvation is reduced to a few. He is not glorified when his redemption is abridged to include only some lost sinners. God is glorified when his love for the lost is seen and savored and enjoyed for what it is: as wide as the atonement he has provided.”

One may disagree with this, but the point is it is similarly posturing, short on exegesis and dealing with the biblical data, trafficking instead in polemics.

Not everyone is as incautious as R. C. Sproul, who famously said that a four point Calvinist is an Arminian.[2] Indeed, in the book that some now consider to be the ultimate presentation and defense of definite atonement, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, several contributors acknowledge the diversity within the Reformed tradition. Amar Djaballah notes this about Moïse Amyraut: “In all this, we should remember that Amyraut wrote as a professor of theology in a confessional Reformed academy and that he was cleared of accusations of heresy by a national synod and allowed to teach theology until his death. Hence, notwithstanding the Wirkungsgeschichte (reception history) of his theses in the history of Reformed thought, he should be studied as a member of the Reformed theological community, with whom one may differ, not as an adversary to reduce to silence.”[3]

Or, as Garry Williams says, “As the examples of Ussher and Knox will show, the Reformed have disagreed among themselves over the intent of the atonement. My argument for definite atonement should not be taken as an attempt to disenfranchise others who share central Reformed convictions, and for whom I am grateful to God for many reasons. Enough Reformed blood has been spilled by friendly fire.”[4]

My appeal is that as much as possible we eschew the kind of hyperbole that can seem partisan. Note well, I do not decry any forceful presentation of a deeply held view, nor strong convictions about what Scripture teaches. Indeed, I encourage this, and engage in it myself, but let these presentations be based on the biblical data alone, not on confessional formulas, nor on unproven or indemonstrable entailments.

[1] David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, “Sacred Theology and the Reading of the Divine Word” in David Gibson et al., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013). P. 53.


[3] Amar Djaballah, “Controversy on Universal Grace A Historical Survey of Moïse Amyraut’s Brief Traitté De La Predestination” in David Gibson et al., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013). P. 168-169.

[4] Garry J. Williams, “The Definite Intent of Penal Substitutionary Atonement” in David Gibson et al., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013). P. 462.

Does the Passover Demonstrate Definite Atonement?

At various point through the years, I have investigated the idea of “definite atonement.” As I’m now reading through From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective a few reactions have come to mind. I recognize the topic is broad, and takes in many different aspects of theology, so I don’t want to diminish the complexity of it by coming to some summary conclusions in this post. The book moves to discuss the scriptural evidence for definite atonement in the second section, and the chapter by Paul R. Williamson entitled “Because He Loved Your Forefathers: Election, Atonement, and Intercession in the Pentateuch” considers (among other things) whether the Passover institution foreshadows it. I say foreshadows because Williamson forthrightly notes “while definite atonement is nowhere explicitly mentioned, [in the Pentateuch] there are certainly hints of the concept embedded within this body of literature.”[1]

One of the first he considers is the Passover. Williamson says:

“The amount of flock animal consumed was to be directly proportionate to the number in each household (Ex. 12:4), suggesting that each animal slain provided for only a limited number of individuals. Its apotropaic effects were thus restricted to a carefully qualified group of people within each household. Each lamb served a specific body of people and redeemed a prescribed household. Moreover, only those who actually participated in the Passover meal could find refuge behind the blood-smeared door frames (12:7–13, 21–23).15 There is thus no idea here of an all-embracing sacrifice, but rather one that served a specific goal for a specific group.”[2]

Williamson finds at least an impression of particularity, and limitation, but I wonder if he has imposed this on the text. The instructions to Israel were that they should be careful that there be no lamb left over, but the idea of limitation—there there is only so much lamb to go around—is not there. If a house had more people than a single lamb could feed, the instructions are, get another lamb, and create another family unit to eat that lamb. There is a natural limitation on how many people a lamb could feed, and Williamson seems to draw from this the idea that there is only so much atonement available in the Lord Jesus (?) But advocates of definite atonement have almost always agreed that any consideration of the idea is not because there is a lack, or an insufficiency in the death of Jesus. They almost always say that had God wanted to, he could have designed an atonement sufficient for all. The instructions are the opposite of Williamson’s suggestion. As many Israelites as there are, this determines how many lambs are needed. The distribution is “according to the number of persons.” Ex. 12:4.

Secondly, Williamson speaks of a “carefully qualified group of people within each household.” But where is this in the instructions to Israel? On the contrary, “Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb.” (12:3) and “the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.” (12:6) It is, rather, an indiscriminate group, an all-encompassing command—all the congregation and the whole assembly. What would fit here is an affirmation of the formula of Peter Lombard, the medieval theologian who is first credited with the explanation that the death of Christ is sufficient for all, but efficient for some. It is easy to see in the command to the whole assembly a “sufficient for all” idea.

The other point Williamson makes is that “only those who actually participated in the Passover meal could find refuge behind the blood-smeared door.” Here, too, it is easy to see this as the exercise of faith, the very thing that those on the other side of the question from Williamson aver to be happening in the atonement. To partake in it requires faith. In the Passover, there is no merit in the Israelites, and there is no idea of election of some only. Later in the chapter, Williamson does expand on the idea that to be part of the nation of Israel alone was not enough to be truly elect. This comes as he discusses the covenant idea, and that there are those in the covenant, who are not truly elect. But whatever support there is for this in the history of Israel, it is not shown by the Passover. Why? Because the Passover is all-inclusive, and the distinction is not whether one is truly elect or not, but simply whether one is in the house. The Israelites who believed God’s Word were in a house with blood smeared on the door.

But we should also note that the Passover itself is not a general judgement, that is, it wasn’t all those in the house who were subject to death, but only the firstborn. Nor was it all the Egyptians who were killed, but only the firstborn. This further removes the rite from a one to one equivalency with atonement and redemption as Williamson wants to posit.

Finally, the New Testament clearly indicates the Passover as a type. “Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us.” One can run into difficulties in constructing doctrine from pictures, that is, from being specific about New Testament doctrines from Old Testament types. There is simply not this level of equivalency. In the establishment of the Davidic covenant, God tells David
“I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” (2 Sam. 7:12-14)

Solomon is thus a type of Christ. The Psalms contain this idea as well. But if we insist that the details of the type must reflect the antitype exactly, then we have this: “When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men.” (2 Sam 7:14) This was true of Solomon, but it is certainly not true of Christ. Seeking doctrine from types is thus fraught with challenges.

There are some arguments for definite atonement—but the Passover is not among them. Indeed, I think Williamson has, if anything, scored a basket in the other team’s hoop. The details in Exodus 12 would make a better case for unlimited atonement. I continue my study of the topic, and I know many writers and scholars I respect hold to definite atonement. I’m not there, and the Passover won’t get me there.

[1] Paul Williamson, “Because He Loved Your Forefathers: Election, Atonement, and Intercession in the Pentateuch” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, eds. (Wheaton, Crossway, 2013), 228.

[2] Williamson, 231-232.

Is Holy Scripture Sufficient?

The expanse of 2000 years of Church history means that one is forced to be more precise and specific than some prior ages might have required, because as Thomas Schreiner has written, “controversy is the furnace in which clearer theology is formed.” Distinguishing between the authority of Scripture and the sufficiency of it is one of those furnaces, and indeed, while both are doubted, there is a need to parse the implications of saying Scripture is neither primary nor enough for our knowledge of Jesus. I recently interacted with a few people on Twitter after something I said about Scripture. My statement was this:

Have you heard someone say that the incarnate Word is greater than the written word?   The only way we know about the incarnate Word is from the written word.

My intent with this was to counter what has become a common sentiment with some, that Jesus is greater than Scripture, and that the true Word of God is Jesus Himself, with an intent to downgrade the Scriptures as a way of knowing Jesus. Of course the Son of God is the fullest revelation of God to us—but this does not imply a contrast with Scripture. This is what I object to. I did get some questions asking whether Jesus is not known through the sacraments, or in the worship of the church. In these cases, it is still an appeal to Scripture, because the establishment of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are grounded in Scripture, as well as how we know how to worship. The person posing this question agreed that these do not represent different ways of knowing about Jesus, only derivative ways (from Scripture) of knowing.

An example of the position I am critical of is expressed by Brian Zahnd, in his foreword to Keith Giles book, Jesus Unbound. “With Sola Scriptura as a defiant battle cry there always lurked the temptation to place more weight on the Bible than it could bear, or worse yet, a temptation to deify the Bible and make an idol out of it… So while pretending to ‘take the Bible as it is,’ the fundamentalist reads the Bible through thick lenses of cultural, linguistic, political, and theological assumptions— interpretive lenses they are unaware of wearing.”[1]

(I cite Zahnd only because he has spoken publicly, but there are many others expressing the same or similar views.)

As one reads on, one sees that “placing more weight on the Bible than it could bear” seems to be interpreting Scripture in ways Zahnd disagrees with. Moreover, everyone comes to Scripture with many assumptions, including Zhand. Stating it as he has gives the impression that while others are blind to their own biases, he is not. If he believes this, it is as much hubris as he avers proponents of biblicism to hold. I am reminded of the illustration of the 3 blind men feeling their way around an elephant, each describing it differently. Every person only has a limited perspective on the truth, and we are blind to what we don’t see. What is needed is a perspective that sees the whole of it. Tim Keller exposes the folly of this, however. “The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?”[3] Are critics of “biblicism” alone able to see the whole elephant?

Identifying false dichotomies

Zahnd goes on to say, “we don’t start with the Bible; we start with Jesus and the church. Why? Because Jesus is Lord, not the Bible. Christians worship Jesus, not the Bible. Jesus is the head of the church, not the Bible.”[2] To say that Jesus is the true Word of God while Scripture is not, or is in some lesser sense the Word of God is to embrace a division that is both unnecessary and unhelpful. A variation on this theme is to say that it is the Spirit that guides us into the truth, and the Spirit was of course doing this before the canon of Scripture. Both of these positions create a false dichotomy that makes no sense. One wonders in saying, “Jesus is Lord, not the Bible” whether Zahnd means to affirm that the Bible does not carry the authority of Jesus, or that he is not, through the Holy Spirit, speaking in and through the Scriptures? The contrast Zahnd draws is a false one. The church he encourages us to start with has always believed Scripture to be the revelation of God not in contrast with Jesus,

Consider the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. At the conclusion of it, the rich man, in torment in Hell, begs Abraham to send Lazarus—dead as well—to warn his brothers. Abraham counters that they have Moses and the Prophets, “Let them hear them.” It isn’t too much to say that the rich man asks for a miracle, indeed, for a demonstration of the supernatural, of the working of the Spirit.

But Abraham again demurs, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:27-31) In other words, the Scriptures and the witness of them are able to convict and convert them, apart from seeing someone rise from the dead. The Scriptures are the means of conviction and indeed, conversion. What the rich man desires, the Scriptures are able to do, indeed, by the Spirit’s enabling.

The book which Zahn wrote the foreword to contains more such downgrading of Scripture. Keith Giles casts doubt on the idea the only way we can know God is through the Scriptures.

“If the Word of God is Jesus, and if Jesus now lives within me, then I have the Word of God inside of me. Maybe this means that we can know Christ the way we know our own voice, or our own heartbeat, because He is alive within us. The Scriptures also tell us that we “have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) right now and that we can discern “the things that come from the Spirit of God…because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:15) and this Spirit is now alive within us.”[4]

Again the question is whether the voice we hear within us will lead us in ways that are contrary to Scripture? There have been many throughout history who have claimed to speak for God. Is Islam, with a view of God that is very different from what we read in the Christian Bible, an example of hearing God’s voice? Mohammed believed God revealed truth to him. Joseph Smith, too, received a revelation he believed to be from God. Is the Mormon view of God one we should embrace? What criteria would one use to determine this?

Giles also suggests, “not only can we all hear our Master’s voice individually, we are also empowered by the Holy Spirit who “leads us into all truth” (John 16:13), as Jesus promised us.”[5]

But this is at odds with what Zahnd says in his foreword—that was start with the church. Starting with the church means listening to the witness of the church as to the truth of Scripture and of whom it speaks. Affirming that the witness of the Spirit within believers will work apart from Scripture runs counter to what the church has always believed.

The Edge Cases: We shouldn’t make the exception the rule

I want to say a word about those views which I believe are the edge cases, but don’t represent any kind of commonly held position among evangelicals, and which may in fact be little more than poor expressions of a truth. A friend tweeted that “the Bible is not God”—and promptly got a few people who did insist no, “the Bible IS God.” I think these people are, in the main, likely expressing a view on the authority of Scripture, but expressing it very poorly indeed. They know that Scripture is God’s Word, and want to affirm that, but to say the Bible is God is nonsense. Consider a legal affidavit that is signed and notarized, specifying the wishes of one who issued it. Assume it is for the disbursement of funds, yet the agent will not accept the affidavit, wanting to hear from the owner himself. We would say that the affidavit carries all the authority of the one who issued it, and in the affidavit, you do hear from the owner. I suspect those equating the Bible with God are trying to avoid such a situation—one, in fact, that Zahnd’s position can indeed lead to: Scripture is not as authoritative as God.

Moreover, I have doubts that those expressing this are in fact worshiping their Bibles, bowing down to them, praying to Scripture. It is as ridiculous as it is unlikely. This, too, makes me think that saying God is the Bible is but a ham-handed attempt to affirm Scripture. This is not to say we shouldn’t correct wrong thinking such as this.

The other edge case bears hardly a mention, but those who equate God’s word with only one translation of Scripture also fall into a kind of idolatry. It is foolish, but here, too, the solution is not to downgrade the authority or sufficiency of Scripture, but to correct this misunderstanding, while affirming what is true of the Bible.

Lord, To Whom Shall We Go?

When the disciples were with Jesus and he spoke some hard sayings, many drew back. He asked the Twelve if they also wanted to go away. Peter answered that they knew Jesus alone had the words of eternal life. How does one go to Jesus today for the words of eternal life? The eyewitnesses are long gone from the scene, and in their stead we have what Peter calls “the prophetic word more fully confirmed.” (2 Pet 1:19)  That Peter is speaking of the Scriptures is clear from what he next says. “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.” (2 Pet 1:20)

Paul, also, speaks of the same sure ability of Holy Scripture to guide us when he says to Timothy, “you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Tim 3:15-16) In both cases, Peter and Paul are speaking of the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament. If this power is there for that part of Scripture, does anyone believe it is not the case for the New Testament?

Perhaps the largest unanswered question with an approach that says Jesus is the Word of God rather than Scripture is this: Where does one turn to know about Jesus? Where do I find his promises, his warnings, his imperatives? How might I know him? Giles and Zahnd have no cogent answer if they dismiss the sufficiency of Scripture in the life of Christians. While they say Scripture is very important, they also repeatedly affirm Jesus is known apart from and outside of Scripture. But Jesus himself pointed to the Hebrew Bible as the foundation of what he did and said. On the Emmaus road,  he said to the two, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:26-27) The apostle Paul did the same, “I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass.” His ministry and message were ground in the Hebrew Bible. Here, too, we find no division, no false choice of Jesus or Scripture. Rather, Jesus through Scripture.

The approach that says we can or should know Jesus apart from the Bible, that we should demote its place in the life of the Christian, such an approach doesn’t solve any of the challenges in reading Scripture, and indeed, few deny the challenges are there. Rather, it shifts the locus where we look for truth to something other than God’s revelation in Scripture. Whether it’s the inner voice, or other people, these are ultimately not as trustworthy as God’s Word. This approach doesn’t clarify, it only adds one more voice to the interpretive din.


[1] Keith Giles. Jesus Unbound. Quoir. Kindle Edition., p. 11.

[2]Ibid. p. 13.

[3]Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 9.

[4]Giles, p. 43.

[5] Giles, Loc. Cit.


The Gospel is in Leviticus

“Moses and all the prophets” includes the 3rd book of the Torah.

It’s somewhat of an evangelical applause line to say that you’ve tried to read through the Bible in a year, but got bogged down in Leviticus. Brothers and sisters, I’d like to issue an appeal that we stop disparaging the book as some cryptic, impossible-to-understand work that we somehow tolerate because it’s part of the Hebrew Bible. Instead, let’s look at Leviticus as the rich trove of symbols and types of Christ that it is. A few things to keep in mind:

1. The book is not hard to understand.
Many give the impression that the words and language of Leviticus are so difficult, so hard, that understanding the book is almost impossible. It’s simply not the case. Our English Bible translations of Leviticus make it no more difficult than Genesis or Exodus. Are there cultural differences that we might not readily understand? Of course, but that’s quite different than saying the words make no sense. Much of the Old Testament is culturally foreign to us, yet there is blessing in reading, and striving to understand it.

2. Jesus himself ratifies our study of it.
In Luke 24, Jesus twice points the disciples to the writings Moses—which includes Leviticus—as christological.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. 24:27

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 24:44

The offerings, which take up the first 6 chapters of the book, are pointing forward to the one offering of Jesus. He is the burnt offering, wholly given over to do his Father’s will, “a pleasing aroma.” (Lev 1)
The Lord Jesus was delivered up for our trespasses. (Lev 5, the trespass offering.) Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Lev 17:11) is gospel truth, and it is here in Leviticus.

3. Other parts of the New Testament reinforce Leviticus as christological.
By contrast, we learn that what the high priest does on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23), Jesus has done once for all.
Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Heb 9:25-26)
Indeed, one can make that the case that a clear understanding of the book of Hebrews, and the truths it means to convey (all the “betters”) is only possible when we understand the things Leviticus sets forth.

There are certainly parts of the book that have to do with the life of Israel in the land, but even then, we can still draw lessons. God is interested in the holiness of his people, that they keep separate from sin.
If you stop reading once you reach the end of Exodus, you’re missing out on some truth the Holy Spirit wants to teach you.