The Crystal Clarity of Romans — Menu

Introduction—”We should expect to find Paul’s chief points of doctrine boldly stated, and nothing material hidden behind subtleties that only a scholar amongst the recipients could understand.”

Part A—Neither pagan ritual nor studious law-keeping can get us to God.

Part B—Only the work of Christ, apprehended by faith, brings us to God

Part C—The extraordinary love that we saw in action when we were estranged from God assures us that it will continue now we are reconciled to him.

Part D1—A new way to think: identification with Christ gives reason and motivation to withstand sin.

Part D2—Another new way to think: pragmatically compare the old way of life with what is possible in the new.

Part E—In Romans 7, it is unnecessary to precisely identify “I”. Whoever “I” is, a law-based approach to sanctification is certain to fail.

Part F—The new way of the Spirit replaces the never-competent Law.

Part G—Our present frailty and suffering is not a contradiction of our glorious standing in Christ.

Part H—God’s glorious purpose will not be thwarted.

Part I—The Clarity of Romans 9‒11

Image attribution: https://morguefile.com/photos/morguefile/1/crystal ,by lisaleo

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Defending the Faithful 2

The 2018 General Synod of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia (ACANZP) voted to permit clergy to bless same-sex unions that had been contracted under New Zealand Civil law, provided the Bishop of the Diocese gave his permission. At the same time, it was made plain that no Bishop was required to give that permission, and that no Bishop could require his/her clergy to conduct such blessings against their conscience, nor disfavour them because of it.

Some clergy, followed by many in their congregations, withdrew from the ACANZP as soon as the motion was passed, but were they right? On the other hand, the Bishop of Christchurch has come under criticism because he has agreed to permit such blessings even though he is not yet convinced that there is a case from the Word of God for them. Are his critics right, or is he right in the concession he has made?

The purpose of this post is to discuss the first of these questions, keeping in mind the principles for preserving fellowship which Anthony Norris Groves set out in his 1836 letter to J N Darby, and which I believe to be an apt summary of the Biblical standard for us in such matters —see my previous post. (Groves would, I expect, have been horrified at the idea of same-sex blessings, and I am not drawing upon his letter to imply otherwise. I simply want to draw upon his wisdom in the matter of when it is or is not right to separate from other professing believers.)

In a further post, I hope to extend the discussion to the question of the decision by the Bishop of Christchurch to permit such blessings.


I need to stress that my purpose in this post is not to advocate for same-sex blessings. There will be nothing in the post that does so advocate. I simply want to discuss the question of whether it is right to separate from those who do advocate them. It will quickly become obvious that I believe that such separation runs contrary to the Scriptures, and so I hope that I can change the thinking of those who believe separation is necessary. Therefore, I run the risk that my passion against separation will be interpreted as passion for same-sex blessings. I ask you not to conflate the two.


  • Scriptural quotations in this post, except where otherwise noted, are from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
  • I will often abbreviate “same-sex blessings” to “ssb” from this point forward.

Are Advocates of Same-Sex Blessings the Kind of False Teachers from whom Separation is Commanded?

I think all sides would agree that it is scriptural that teachers who bring certain kinds of teaching into the Church are to be identified as false teachers and separated from. There are a number of passages on that subject in the New Testament, but the ones that I think most relevant to the present controversy are 2 Peter 2, Jude, Revelation 2:14 and 2:20, and 2 Corinthians 6:17-18 with 1 Corinthians 5:9-11. I do not want to impede the main flow of this post, so I have appended near the its end excerpts from those places, with my comments interpolated to—I think— prove the case that proponents of same-sex blessings do not match the profiles that Peter, Jude, Paul and the Lord Jesus give here.

Nor does the advocacy of ssb (if indeed it is wrong) parallel the kinds of false teaching that are condemned by Paul in Acts 20 (“savage wolves … not sparing the flock“) or 1 Timothy 1 (“myths and endless genealogies“) or 1 Timothy 4 (“…forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods …”) or 1 Timothy 6 (“...depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”) or 2 Timothy 3 (“lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power …“). 

The shoe does not fit, and proponents of same-sex blessings are right to refuse to wear it. Any opponents of same-sex blessings who use these passages to justify separation are mistaken.

Is Disagreement about Sola Scriptura Grounds for Separation?

Neither the content of what ssb proponents teach nor their own manner of life fits the profiles of false teachers as given in the New Testament. Nevertheless, it is obvious that, to reach the view they have, they must have a wider view of how the Word of God is discerned than the view encompassed in the orthodox Protestant doctrine of “sola Scriptura“. 

Among those who give support to same-sex blessings are many—perhaps even a majority— who are creedally orthodox. They don’t recite the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed with their fingers crossed—they believe every word of them. In the matters that the Church fathers deemed to be core matters of faith, they are as orthodox as any fundamentalist Protestant; perhaps even more so. Like all orthodox scholars, they give reason its place in the exegesis of the Scriptural texts as texts-in-themselves. However, unlike many in Protestant orthodoxy, they allow modern knowledge (or alleged knowledge—I am being neutral here) to have a place, too, in their interpretation and pastoral application of the Scriptures, and this leads some of them to believe that God indeed may extend his blessing to same-sex relationships. 

Their view on same-sex relationships is therefore one they have come by faithfully, so to speak, and one that still gives the Scriptures first place in their theology; just not the sola Scriptura voice of Reformation Protestantism. Now, no matter how strongly you believe that sola Scriptura is correct, is it nevertheless right to, in effect, excommunicate those who do not hold it? There is no fault to be found with their confession of faith or the Christian probity of their lives. Why then are you separating from them?

I am not arguing that the doctrine of sola Scriptura is incorrect, just that the word of God gives no reason for separation from faithful believers who do not think so, or for bringing Church discipline down upon them.

Listening Again to A. N. Groves 

Compatibility with the Common Life

Let me repeat something from Groves that I quoted in my previous post, but this time including a clause (here emphasised) that I replaced by an ellipsis last time. 

“I ever understood our principle of union to be the possession of the common life or common blood of the family of God… The moment the witnessing for the common life as our bond gives place to a witnessing against errors by separation of persons and preaching (errors allowably compatible with the common life), every individual, or society of individuals, first comes before the mind as those who might need witnessing against, and all their conduct and principles have first to be examined and approved before they can be received; and the position which this occupying the seat of judgment will place you in will be this: the most narrow-minded and bigoted will rule, because his conscience cannot and will not give way, and therefore the more enlarged heart must yield.”

If we were to pluck Anthony Norris Groves straight from his 19th Century milieu and put the question to him, I expect that he would think that living in a faithful same-sex relationship was not compatible with the common life, and nor would condoning such a relationship be compatible in his eyes. We are not living in the 19th Century, however, and we have a great deal more data available to us regarding the circumstances of same-sex attraction, to the point where very few pastors would see its origin in an individual’s life as his or her conscious rebellion against God’s norm. I am confident that, in those congregations that have left the ACANZP over the matter of same-sex blessings, someone who approached the pastor for counseling over same-sex attraction or involvement would receive a much more empathetic reception than would have been typical in evangelical churches 75 or 100 years ago . The counsel would be for celibacy, and the stance would be, no partaking of the Eucharist while a same-sex relationship was ongoing, but there would be compassionate warmth shown toward the person.

Pastoral attitudes have therefore changed, correctly influenced by information from outside the Scriptures. What, then, of those who, having a different view on Scriptura, think that the gospel allows us to presume God’s blessing on faithful same-sex relationships? Is holding such a view, even if mistaken, incompatible with the common life? My own view, of course, is that it is not incompatible. Acceptance of faithful same-sex relationships is not a scandal and it does not promote licentiousness. Someone who does not accept ssb has no warrant to separate from a pastor and congregation who do. They do far more damage to the body of Christ and its witness by their leaving than the occurrence of same-sex blessings in other congregations (if mistaken) will ever do.

Absence of Constraint

Returning again to Groves: “…we felt ourselves bound to separate from all individuals and systems, so far as they required us to do what our consciences would not allow, or restrained us from doing what our consciences required …” and “…were we not as free to join and act with any individual, or body of individuals, as they were free not to require us to do what our consciences did not allow, or prevent our doing what [our consciences] did [require]?”

The motion passed by the ACANZP does not constrain any Bishop to permit, nor any clergy-person to carry out, the blessing of a same-sex union, and it does not redefine marriage. It does, however restrain those opposed from taking action in the courts of the Church against clergy who do permit or pronounce such blessings. Are those who are leaving doing so, then, because their consciences are ablaze with the urgent need to bring their fellow clergy into court and they cannot abide remaining in a communion that will not, in this case, permit it? And, seen in that light, is their act of withdrawal not somewhat less than grand and godly?

I understand: to one who does not believe that the blessing of same-sex unions can ever be justified Biblically, it seems that such blessings undercut the Bible’s injunctions to holiness of life, removing such unions from the roster of things that need to be repented of when one has believed in Christ. I understand the anxiety that would cause in you for the wellbeing of other congregations and same-sex attracted people in them. But why do you see departure as the necessary way to express your concern, when by doing so you separate yourself from many whose orthodox confession of faith gives you no good grounds for saying that the light and life of Christ is not in them? Are you making agreement with you on this matter the litmus test of true faith? If so, where is your confidence that the Holy Spirit is able in his own measured time to make believers realise that they have strayed into error, if indeed they have done so?

No! In the midst of such differences, let us have the same spirit as that expressed by Groves when he said, “I would INFINITELY RATHER BEAR with all their evils, than SEPARATE from THEIR good.”

Turning the Appeal in the Other Direction

I have suggested that those good and faithful women and men who have separated from the ACANZP over the matter of same-sex blessings have made a mistake, and this despite the fact that their position regarding homosexual relationships is the prima facie doctrine of Scripture and has been taught as such for most of the past 2000 years.

I believe that most of those who support same-sex blessings would sincerely wish that those who have left had not done so, but I also believe that a few have taken a “good riddance” attitude, and I find that appalling! It shows no recognition and no regret that this departure is a tearing apart of the Body of Christ. Do you love Christ at all, that you should receive news of a schism with cheerfulness?

Therefore, I appeal to those who have enjoyed the sound of “good riddance” on their own tongue or in their heart, please think again. Even if you think it an “evil” that those who have left were opposing same-sex blessings, should not your attitude still be the one put forward by Groves, “I would infinitely rather bear with all their evils than separate from their good”?

Next time, God willing: “The Errant (?) Bishop”

Appendix: Comments on Passages about False Teachers

(2 Peter 2:1) But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions

  • Those who oppose ssb of course believe that it would be destructive to the health of the Church to permit them, but should it not first be proved from the Word of God that their introduction must necessarily be destructive? I suggest that many advocates of ssb do so from a background of orthodox faith—i,e, not one of liberalism—and are as anxious as any other orthodox believer to protect the Church against licentiousness.
  • The rejoinder is likely to be made that it is indeed destructive if some are excluded from salvation because they have accepted this teaching and so have entered into a same-sex relationship which they would otherwise have eschewed. I have no dispute with those who, opposing ssb on what they believe are scriptural grounds, see ssb teaching as destructive in that way. However, I think that applying 2 Peter 2:1 as grounds for separation from present proponents of ssb may be to use the verse in a shallow way, as a proof text that conveniently validates an already-chosen course of action rather than compelling it. The reason I think that is because such a course seems to ignore the examples that Peter immediately gives of kinds of destructive behaviour that he has in mind, and which do not match what I see from those who advocate ssb.

They will even deny the Master who bought them..

  • This might be true of some at the extremes of liberalism. It is not true of most.

(2 Peter 2:2) …many will follow their licentious ways

  • How many of those advocating ssb are living licentiously? In the large numbers of the Church, you will surely find some, but the behaviour of that minority should not dictate your treatment of the majority.

(2 Peter 2:3) And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words. 

  • I see no evidence that those promoting ssb are doing so to somehow enrich themselves, and certainly no evidence of an attempt to deceive.

…by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes [God] condemned them to extinction and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly; 

  • The licentious homosexual behaviour that was evident in Sodom and Gomorrah was a symptom of a much wider rebellion against God. It is wrong to isolate homosexuality as though it were the defining reason for God’s judgment.
  • In any case, Peter puts licentiousness at the forefront, and (to reiterate), licentiousness does not characterise the lives of those who advocate ssb. 

(2 Peter 2:9-10) …the Lord knows how to … keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment —especially those who indulge their flesh in depraved lust, and who despise authority.

  • Advocates for the blessing of faithful same-sex relationships argue that sexual expression within such a relationship is not intrinsically lustful or depraved, just as sexual expression within a heterosexual marriage is also neither of those.

(2 Peter 2:12ff) …These people, however, are like irrational animals, mere creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed. They slander what they do not understand, and when those creatures are destroyed, they also will be destroyed, suffering the penalty for doing wrong. They count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their dissipation while they feast with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed…. (etc, to the end of the chapter).

  • Anyone who thinks Peter’s description here is applicable to present-day Christian advocates of ssb deserves to be sued for slander!

(Jude 2:4) …certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

  • My earlier comments on similar statements by Peter cover Jude’s words, too.

(Jude 2:7) Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

  • I am convinced that the Scriptures present sexual connection between persons of the same gender as always unnatural, as measured against the benchmark of God’s original design for humankind. 
  • However, I recognise that proponents of ssb are trying to make the case that there are kinds of faithful same-sex relationship whose primary driver is the desire for companionship and support from someone with whom each partner feels at one, and only secondarily (though powerfully) for sexual consummation of that relationship.
  • The ssb advocates therefore want to hold that the love and grace of God covers such relationships when they are entered into by couples who have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. They are by no means trying to introduce sexual promiscuity into the Church.
  • I therefore do not believe that Jude’s words can serve as a guide to the attitude that others in the Church should take toward ssb advocates.

(Revelation 2:14 – the words of Jesus!) But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication. (Revelation 2:20) But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.

  • Balaam and Jezebel were deliberately trying to set all God’s people on a path of idolatry and immorality. I don’t think that anyone in the  congregation who sees a same-sex union blessed by their minister is going to take it as a nod to lower their standards of morality, do you, or to take up idol worship, if the overall content of the minister’s preaching is seeking to reinforce orthodox belief in Jesus Christ and the worship of him as the eternal Son of God? The words of Jesus to Pergamum and Thyatira are severe and important when parallel cases arise anywhere in the Church, but the advocacy of same-sex blessings is not a parallel case.

(2 Corinthians 6:17-18) Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters,says the Lord Almighty.

  • It is clear, because of the  way 2 Corinthians 6:13 connects seamlessly to 7:3 if the intervening verses are ignored, that the section from 2 Corinthians 6:14 to 7:2 is an interpolation into 2nd Corinthians from some other letter of Paul’s. It seems to fit the letter mentioned in 1st Corinthians 5:9, but it does not matter if it is from a different letter. Either way, the latter verse makes it clear what kind of separation Paul was advocating, and the 2nd Corinthians passage should not be applied without that context.

(1 Corinthians 5:9-11) I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons— not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.

  • We have established above, I think, that supporters of ssb cannot be characterised as sexually immoral or greedy, or idolaters, revilers, drunkards, or robbers.
  • If you think that professing Christians who are in a faithful same-sex relationship are sexually immoral, you may think that Paul’s words oblige you to separate from them. I hope that you don’t, but I can understand that you might.
  • However, are you also obliged to separate from someone who, because they faithfully believe that a faithful same-sex relationship is not immoral, do not themselves separate from people who are in such a relationship?
  • If you do separate for such a reason, I think you may be setting up a dangerous rule, and one that does not have Christ’s blessing: “You will not separate from someone or some system I think you should separate from, therefore, I must separate from you.”

Image source: Split Apple Rock: (c) Can Stock Photo / AustralianCamera

Defending the Faithful

I have realised that one of the most important and formative documents I have ever read, outside of the Bible itself, is a letter written in 1836 by Anthony Norris Groves to John Nelson Darby.

In 1827-28, Darby, originally a minister in the Church of England, founded the system of informal groups that within a few years became known as the Plymouth Brethren. One of the early participants in those groups was Anthony Norris Groves, soon after to become a missionary to Baghdad and then to India.

By early 1836, Groves had become concerned at what he had heard and seen of the increasing exclusivism and authoritarianism of Darby’s leadership, and so he wrote a letter to him that can serve as a letter to the Darby in all of us that wants to force others to understand the Scriptures on all points exactly as we do.

Sadly, Groves’ words did not have the desired effect, and the Brethren movement split in 1848 into the Exclusive Brethren, headed by Darby, and the Open Brethren, among whose leaders were Groves and George Mueller of Bristol, and whose contributions since then to Christ’s Church would be agreed by all but the Exclusives to have been, on the whole, salutary.

To my mind, there is so much wisdom in Groves’ counsel that it deserves to be kept in mind whenever there is a doctrinal dispute between believers that one or other party wants to resolve by exclusion or separation. (In the following quotations, any italics or all-capitals represent Groves’ own emphases, and bold type represents mine.)

  • Groves’ own guiding principle in the face of much that was manifestly wrong in the Church was, “…give every individual, and collection of individuals, the standing God gives them, without identifying yourselves with any of their evils.” (And by “evils”, Groves obviously means those things that we think are evils in another. He is not claiming infallible discernment here.)
  • He continues, “I ever understood our principle of union to be the possession of the common life or common blood of the family of God…” and “The moment the witnessing for the common life as our bond gives place to a witnessing against errors by separation of persons and preaching…, every individual, or society of individuals, first comes before the mind as those who might need witnessing against, and all their conduct and principles have first to be examined and approved before they can be received; and the position which this occupying the seat of judgment will place you in will be this: the most narrow-minded and bigoted will rule, because his conscience cannot and will not give way, and therefore the more enlarged heart must yield.”

[I have deliberately put an ellipsis after “persons and preaching”. The omitted text is important, and I will return to it in my next post.]

  • It is a mistake to make “light not life the measure of communion.”
  • The only reason for separating from a Christian individual or system is if they “required us to do what our consciences would not allow, or restrained us from doing what our consciences required…” (Don’t worry: the phrase I indicated by an ellipsis in an earlier quote implicitly covers the matter of separation because of sexual immorality, but I want in this post to highlight the reasons Groves gives for not separating. The exception is for later discussion.)
  • Furthermore, “…were we not as free to join and act with any individual, or body of individuals, as they were free not to require us to do what our consciences did not allow, or prevent our doing what [our consciences required]?”
  • I would INFINITELY RATHER BEAR with all their evils, than SEPARATE from THEIR good.”
  • “…the moment your position and your language implied a perfect separation, alike from the evil and the good, and a rejection of them, in consequence of their system, without discrimination, … they felt that though only a brother in a Father’s house, you exercised more than a Father’s power, without a Father’s heart of mercy, and they, therefore, appealed from you to your common Head, both in behalf of themselves and their systems.”
  • We need to prove that our “…heart of love is more alive to find a covering for faults, than your eagle eye of light to discover them.”
  • “If it is said man cannot discriminate, nor feel the force of my witness, unless I separate, not by heart and life, but by contiguity of person, altogether from all kinds of false systems, my answer is, that He, whose place it is to judge, and to whom we are called to approve our hearts, can, and to Him, in this matter, I am content to stand or fall.”

It is my view that the position Groves sets out is entirely Biblical—entirely in keeping with the doctrine of the Gospel. In my next post, I hope to consider whether his wisdom can be equally applied to the much more vexed question of fellowship between Christians who believe that God would extend his blessing to faithful same-sex relationships, and those who believe he would not.

Sources:

Re John Nelson Darby: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Nelson_Darby

Re Anthony Norris Groves: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Norris_Groves

The 1836 Letter: https://www.bruederbewegung.de/pdf/grovesdarby.pdf

Picture of Anthony Norris Groves: Public Domain (found at https://birthinukraine.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/ang.jpg)

My thanks to Peter Lineham whose advice helped me track down a copy of the Groves-Darby letter

A Fresh Perspective on the WCF

Technical note: If this post does not seem to display correctly in your browser/viewer, here is a link to a PDF version of the content. (When I created this post, I used WordPress’s new Columns feature to format parts of the post as two columns.It looked correct when previewed, but I have since noticed that not all browsers/viewers render the layout correctly. If you do not see any two-column sections in the post below, you need the PDF.)


As I wrote in my previous post, N.T. Wright’s much-contested suggestions about the meaning of “justification” seem to me not to erase those aspects of a Protestant understanding of salvation that have traditionally come under the “justification” heading. Rather, Wright provides a framework that is a superset within which we can fine-tune our understanding of all the soteriological terms in scripture and their relationship to each other: salvation, justification, adoption, redemption, sanctification, glorification, and so on. The key elements of a standard Protestant understanding of the gospel: by grace, through faith, not by works, sins forgiven, dependent on the cross of Jesus Christ, are still all present in Wright, but adjusted in their relationship in the ordo salutis.

I think that perhaps the best way to get that point across, rather than quoting and discussing at length what Wright says, is to show how I think his fresh perspective might be mapped onto the Westminster Confession of Faith, with (what I think are) just minor revisions and additions to the latter. If I am anywhere near right in the mapping, it will either allay fears or it will enable scholars to identify more precisely which aspects if any of Wright’s idea seem contrary to Scripture and to express that more cogently than they have so far.

I suspect that, rather than justification, it is Wright’s view on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness that will cause the most debate. I am less sure here that I am representing Wright’s view correctly, but if I understand him aright, he believes that the soteriological event (so to speak—I am grasping for the best way to phrase this) that is commonly taught under the label “imputation of Christ’s righteousness” is a reality, but it is an outcome of our union with Messiah Jesus, and so should always be taught in that relationship, as a dependent topic and not a separate one. Also, as such, it should not be seen as the transfer to our account of Christ’s infinitely overflowing meritorious works, but rather as the fruit of our by-grace identification with him.

(If you believe that 2 Corinthians 5:21 shows that Wright is mistaken, please take into account his plausible argument in “Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision” (2009), chapter 6-III, that 2 Corinthians 5:21 is not at all a reference to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness but to a way of life that is set before God’s people because they are new creatures in Christ. His argument is too long and complex for me to summarise here, but please make sure you have read it before you dismiss Wright’s view on imputation out of hand.)

What follows is not my determined view of what the WCF ought to say. As every good meeting chairperson knows, it is far more productive to put a draft motion to a meeting and have the meeting discuss and amend that, than to have an undirected discussion and hope that a useful motion will emerge from it. Some of Wright’s perspectives have been misunderstood and misrepresented by other parties who present them as though they are a threat to orthodoxy. I am fairly confident they are not, and are of significant value, so what I am offering here is an attempt to allay fears and get a cordial discussion going inter pares between scholars (including Wright) who are more able than me.

Of God’s Covenant with Man

WCF 7 (modernised)

1. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures owe obedience to him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he has been pleased to express by way of covenant.

2. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, in which life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

3. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, …

What Might be Added?

…called the covenant of promise. This he made with the patriarch Abraham, saying to him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”, and “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them… So shall your offspring be” And Abraham believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

See Genesis 12 & Genesis 15

(4). Abraham’s descendants, Israel, being prone to sin like all mankind, God gave them his law at Mt Sinai, to guard and guide them until the coming of Christ, whose coming was always known to God but was only in shadows foretold to Israel.

(5). This law, though given as a covenant, did not annul the covenant of promise, given 430 years before, but was given only as a pedagogue to lead the people of God to Christ.

See Galatians 3:17-24

(6). Israel failed to keep the terms of the covenant of law, and the Lord made it known that he would make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the Sinai covenant which they had broken.

See Jeremiah 31:31-32

(7). This new covenant is…

WCF 7.3 (continued, as 7.7)

… commonly called the covenant of grace; in which he freely offers to sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

WCF 7.4 becomes 7.8

This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed

What WCF 7.5 says (with words struck out that the “What it might say” paragraph, below, omits.)

This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament.

What it Might Say? (as 7.9)

(9) This covenant was present also in the time of the law, administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to Israel, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament.

WCF 7.6 becomes 7.10

Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.

Of Christ the Mediator (WCF 8)

No change, but especially notice for later reference,
5. The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience, and sacrifice of himself, which he, through the eternal Spirit, once offered up to God, has fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father has given to him

Of the Joining of Jews and Gentiles in Christ [WCF bis 8b]

1. It is the purpose, of God, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

(See Ephesians 1:9-10)

2. in Christ Jesus, Gentiles who once were far off from Israel have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

(See Ephesians 2:13)

3. Gentiles are fellow heirs with Israel, members of the same body, the Church, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

(See Ephesians 3:6)

4. Christ is our peace, who has made us both one, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two

(See Ephesians 2:14-15)

5. The Apostle Paul, says, “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ“, and “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise“. Thus, he tells us that the covenant of grace is the fulfilment of the covenant of promise, and our entitlement to its blessings comes through our incorporation by faith into Abraham’s perfect seed, Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Church is not independent of the covenant of promise but depends upon it.

(See Galatians 3:26-27,29)

6. Scripture also uses the metaphor of the olive tree for the union of Jew and Gentile in the Church, in order to enjoin humility even towards those of Israel who have not believed in Christ, saying to Gentile believers, “If you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches that were broken off. Remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.

(See Romans 11:17-20)

7. Scripture foretells a later, great turning of Israel to Christ, saying, “They, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in”, and “All Israel will be saved”, and “As regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”. Therefore, any teaching is to be repudiated that postulates a future blessing for Israel that is other than incorporation through faith into the one body of Christ.

(See Romans 11:23, 26, 29)

8. Nor is any teaching correct that would see “Israel” now as simply the Church, and would deny the existence of promises yet to be fulfilled to the natural descendants of Israel

Of Free Will (WCF 9

(no change)

Of Effectual Calling (WCF 10)

(no change)

Of the Righteous­ness of God [WCF bis 10b]

1. The righteousness of God is his commitment to act in faithfulness to the creation he has brought into being, and to the covenant promises he has made.

2. Scripture also calls God’s actions his righteousness, that are done in faithfulness to his creation and covenants.

(Compare J. I. Packer, 1962, ‘Justification’, in New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas. London: IVP, 683)

3. This righteousness is most gloriously revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Of the Righteousness that may be Attributed to Persons [WCF bis 10c]

1. The righteousness of a person is to be in right standing with God in the covenant relationship to which God has called him or her.

2. Since the fall, no person can be declared righteousness apart from atonement being made for their sins and God’s pardon being received.

3. The declaration by God of a person’s righteousness—right standing before him—is termed “justification”.

4. The ones whose righteousness is so declared do not have God’s own righteousness yet perfected in them as regards all their own actions, but, having been set free from sin, they have become, in their faithful commitment, slaves of God’s standard of righteousness.

Of the Union of Believers with Christ [WCF bis 10d]

1. It is the pleasure of the Father to bring those who believe in Christ into such union with Christ that he becomes the head of a new people.

2. Just as humankind inherited sin and condemnation from their forefather, Adam, so those united with Christ inherit from him the atonement made for their sins, and thence God’s pardon, and thus Christ’s own righteous standing before God.

(See Romans 5:18-19; 8:1; Ephesians 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:29-30)

3. The last-mentioned blessing is sometimes called “the imputation of Christ’s righteousness”.

4. This union with Christ makes the person a new creation, one in whom, though not having in this age freedom from sinfulness of desire, nor constancy of obedience to God, God works, “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” until the new creation is fully manifested in the presence of Christ.

(See 2 Corinthians 5:17; Philippians 2:13; 1 John 3:2)

Of Justification (WCF 11)

What WCF 11.1 says (with words struck out that the “What it might say” paragraph, below, rephrases.)

1. Those whom God effectually calls, he also freely justifies: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ to them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.

What it Might Say?

1, Those whom God effectually calls, he also freely justifies: by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by uniting them with Christ and so imputing his obedience and satisfaction to them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.

WCF 11.2no change: 2. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.

WCF 11.3no change: 3. Christ, by his obedience and death, fully discharged the debt of all those who are thus justified, and made a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them; and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.

WCF 11.4 – no change: 4. God, from all eternity, decreed to justify all the elect, and Christ, in the fullness of time, died for their sins, and rose again for their justification: nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit, in due time, actually applies Christ to them.

WCF 11.5no change: 5. God continues to forgive the sins of those who are justified; and, although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of his countenance restored to them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance.

WCF 11.5no change: 6. The justification of believers under the old testament was, in all these respects, one and the same with the justification of believers under the new testament.


Image attribution: Publishing Office of the Presbyterian Church of England [Public domain]

Wright’s “Fresh Perspectives”: Let’s Look Further


There is gold to be found in N.T. Wright’s fresh perspectives on Paul, but there are also (I think) mistakes or inadequacies or things that need to be stated differently. Let’s not abandon the gold mine; let’s not take the “Nothing to be seen here—move on” attitude that seems to have been the response of many of the scholars who have criticised Wright. This is a situation where the combined wisdom of orthodox scholars is needed both to recognise what is mistaken or mistakenly phrased, and to extract the gold.


Having just completed a series of posts in which I attempted to show “The Crystal Clarity” of Romans 1-8 and “The Clarity” of Romans 9-11, commentaries made with only a superficial knowledge of N.T. Wright’s controversial “fresh perspectives” on Paul, I read two of Wright’s books, to see what difference, if true, his perspectives might make  to the conclusions I had come to in those previous series.

The two books were, “Paul: Fresh Perspectives” (2005), and “Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision” (2009). I read, in the Greek NT every New Testament scripture Wright cited, in its context. I also read a number of the critiques of Wright that see him as seriously in error. While agreeing at some points with their misgivings, I fear that the vehemence of their disagreement may be blinding some teachers to other aspects of the case Wright makes that warrant thoughtful discussion. (More on that at the end of this post.)

My major conclusions from this exercise are these, so far:

1. Wright’s perspectives give many provocative insights into the theology and soteriology of the Apostle Paul, and his books deserve a prominent place in the libraries of every theologian and pastor, even the ones who disagree with him on certain of his contentions.

2. If I read him correctly, he does not think that his much-contested suggestions about the meaning of “justification” erase those aspects of a Protestant understanding of salvation that have traditionally come under the “justification” heading. Rather, Wright sees himself as providing a framework that is a superset within which we must fine-tune our understanding of all the soteriological terms in scripture and their relationship to each other: salvation, justification, adoption, redemption, sanctification, glorification, and so on. Key elements of a standard Protestant understanding of the gospel: by grace, through faith, not by works, sins forgiven, dependent on the cross of Jesus Christ, are still all present in Wright.

3. Romans 4 and Galatians 3 show me that the covenant of grace is the fulfilment of the covenant of promise that God made with Abraham.  Calvin in his Galatians commentary had seen the connection: “[Paul] tells us that God made two covenants with men; one through Abraham, and another through Moses. The former, being founded on Christ, was free; and therefore the law, which came after, could not enable men to obtain salvation otherwise than by grace, for then, ‘it would make the promise of none effect’” (comment on Galatians 3:17). No doubt the Westminster divines were equally aware of the connection, but when in WCF 7 they describe the covenant of grace, they do not mention Abraham, instead mentioning only the  realisation of the covenant of grace through Christ and the types-and-shadows administration of it that existed in the sacrificial system of the Law of Moses. And I think that this neglect of the straight-line connection between the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant is typical of the confessing Protestant church. Has the church been guilty, as Wright would charge, of wrongly “de-Judaizing” the new covenant? The charge seems plausible, and worthy of humble exploration. Have we been missing something important?

4. While the fresh perspectives deserve to have their place in our deeper study of Paul’s letters and doctrine, I do not think they are essential to our initial study and apprehension of Paul’s teaching, even in those aspects where I think Wright’s insights are likely to be correct. (I think Wright may disagree with me about their non-essentiality, but note that I am referring to our initial study, not to our longer term study.)

In the providence of God, we can come to an adequate and saving understanding of the gospel from within our own cultural and intellectual background, an understanding that is conformable to God’s purpose, without needing a deep understanding of the Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures in the midst of which Paul wrote. It would be a rare new convert from any era who had the Athanasian grasp of the Trinity (if I may speak anachronistically) that Wright shows is intrinsic to Paul’s soteriology. That teaching can come later; a deep understanding of it is not required for faith to be sparked and righteousness to be reckoned. In a parallel way, it is not necessary to understand the nuances of Paul’s teaching as a 1st Century Greek, Roman or Jew may have done, to savingly grasp the essence of the gospel—further enrichment can come later.

5. In (2005), Wright makes what seems to me an unfortunate conflation of two ideas when discussing the meaning of justification, “…the passage [Galatians 2:17] works far better if we see the meaning of ‘justified’, not as a statement about how someone becomes a Christian, but as a statement about who belongs to the people of God, and how you can tell that in the present” (p.112, italics and emphasis mine).He also says something similar in (2009): “The second element in justification is of course … that of the covenant. The question is, exactly as in Galatians 2.11–21, Who are the members of God’s single family, and how can you tell? (loc 3567, italics and emphasis again mine). But, to my mind, if justification is something granted by God, the question, “How you can tell that it has been bestowed?” is a different question that should be kept separate from the definition of justification.

To best do justice to what Wright is saying about justification (even if, in the end, we disagree with him), I think we should work from definitions and comments such as these: “…justification is God’s declaration that someone is in the right…” (2009, loc 2811), and “the verb dikaioō, ‘to justify’, … does not denote an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status. It is the status of the person which is transformed by the action of ‘justification’, not the character.” (2009, loc 1458).

That loc 2811 definition, however, continues on to another (to me) unfortunate conflation: “…justification is God’s declaration that someone is in the right, is a member of the sin-forgiven covenant family” (italics mine). It seems to me that being accepted as a member of God’s covenant family is a blessing that follows as a consequence of justification, and is not part of the definition of justification itself.

A similar conflation occurs at loc 4119, where dikaiosynē (righteousness) is equated with covenant membership, rather than the latter being seen as a blessing bestowed because of the righteousness that has been declared.

6. I think that my concern just expressed about what Wright is happy to include in the definition of justification, and I am not, also arises out of another implication of our Trinitarian faith that Wright has not addressed.

  • As re-emphasised by Cornelius Van Til at Westminster Theological Seminary last century, there is an equal ultimacy in the Godhead of the One and the Many, for “The persons of the trinity are mutually exhaustive1 and “Each is as much God as are the other two. The Son and the Spirit do not derive their being from the Father. The diversity and the unity in the Godhead are therefore equally ultimate; they are exhaustively correlative to one another and not correlative to anything else2  and “The space-time universe cannot even be a universe of exclusive particularity. It is brought forth by the creative act of God, and this means in accordance with the plan of the universal God. Hence there must be in this world universals as well as particulars. Moreover they can never exist in independence of one another. They must be equally ultimate which means in this case they are both derivative.3
    (As pointed out by Kreitzer, this insight “…was not unique in church history. The Cappadocian Father, Gregory Nazianzem (Gregory the Theologian)—a scholar John Calvin often quoted as well—used a similar insight.”4)

1 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1955), p42.
2 Cornelius Van Til, Apologetics (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1953), p8.
3 Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1947), p7-8.
4 Mark R. Kreitzer, Review of Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, (2008), accessed 2019/05/19


  • Now, a consequence of this, it seems to me, is that humanity, created in God’s image, must also reflect this truth. If we ever set up or postulate a system that subordinates individual humans (the “many”) to a societal or ecclesiological “One”, or vice versa, we have gone wrong somewhere. Certainly, God would never establish such a system. However we define “justification”, it must be seen as applying to the individual, and in such a way that it does not suppress his or her individuality, or value as an individual to God. Any subordination of the individual to the collective must be entirely voluntary, as modeled by the relationships of the economic Trinity and impelled by the work of the Holy Spirit in those justified.
  • But Wright’s conflations seem to me to push the individual out of sight so that he or she just becomes a cog in God’s great plan, and the overall way he presents his doctrine of justification seems to likely to dampen that, “Wow, God did this for me!” feeling that has previously often accompanied effectual gospel presentations. (I know that Wright does not see individuals as cogs; I’m just saying that I think his unfortunate phrasing lends to that impression).
  • And, I suspect that the seeming elimination of the personal “wow” factor is part of what has made so many critics think that Wright is badly wrong, quite apart from their loyalties to the historic standards of the Church. Somehow, what he wrote did not resonate with their own experience of the gospel (nor mine!), so they decided that the whole scheme must be faulty. Yes, Wright brings to the forefront other things for us to gasp at, other doxologies, but that should not have been at the expense of the “Amazing Grace”, “And Can it Be”, “O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” sense of wonder at Christian conversion. But, whether he intended that result or not, that is what he has done. Perhaps adding yet another aspect of Trinitarian understanding into his exposition of “the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world… to rid the world of sin and establish his new creation” (2009, loc 1546) might solve the problem. For my part, I think it is an additional perspective that is crucially missing from his work so far.

7. Paul’s letter to the Romans (in particular) still provides an effective rebuttal to anyone who happens to teach that justification depends on keeping the moral law, even if 1st Century Judaism was not as guilty of that error as it has been portrayed in standard expositions of Romans.

8. However, I think Wright is mistaken when he presents the Jewish error regarding the law as one of seeing justification (however defined) just as depending on observance of the cultic/ceremonial aspects of the law. To my mind, some of the texts in Romans where Paul refers to “works of law” clearly have in view the moral law, not the ceremonial, and Wright’s arguments have not convinced me otherwise. Therefore, Paul (who was in a position to know) did not find his fellow 1st Century Jews as guiltless as their 21st Century apologists do of belief that their own keeping of the moral law contributed to their justification by God.

And, we might add, many of the interactions of Jesus (who also was in a position to know) with the Pharisees suggest to me that he didn’t see them in that light, either.

9. I read Wright’s 2005 work first, and the 2009 work second, and only in the second book understood (I think) what he meant about justification, and the grounds for his new perspective on it. I found Wright’s treatment of it in the first book quite unclear. I would urge anyone whose only knowledge of Wright’s perspective on justification is from sources earlier than 2009 (Wright himself, or third parties, including John Piper), please now read (2009) and critiques that are aware of it.

One such critique that I found particularly helpful is by Richard Phillips, Five Arguments Against Future Justification According to Works, in which he argues against an aspect of Wright’s thought that I, too, found especially problematic.

10. Despite the caveats in some of my previous paragraphs, I think that Wright’s perspective on justification is indeed worth further examination, namely, that justification is first and foremost and simply that act of God by which he declares us to be in right standing in his covenant, the covenant of grace that had its beginning in the covenant with Abraham, and that classical Protestant handling of the term has rolled too much else of the ordo salutis into it, and that we can do our theological studies with much clearer heads if we separate out the overload—not denying or erasing the truths that were contained in the overload, but dealing with them in a different place.

I hope now to further the discussion by publishing a reworking and augmentation of relevant statements in the Westminster Confession of Faith, to show how I think they might look if Wright’s perspectives were taken into account. My own expectation, which may be proved wrong, is that the result will show that all the substance of the Confession is still there—i.e. that there is no change to the saving faith that is being confessed, just to the framing of some of its details. One of the patterns I have noticed in the interchanges between Wright and his critics is this: the critic finds fault with some statement in Wright, then Wright replies and says, “Your criticism shows that you didn’t understand my statement—here’s a different way of putting it,” and the critic or some other spokesman finds fault with the revised statement, and so round and round the fruitless circle goes. I hope that by using the device of pinning what I take to be Wright’s meaning to a reshaped “WCF”, I can create something that can be objectively discussed by both sides.

The Clarity of Romans 9‒11 — Intro & Menu

Introductory Comments

After the Apostle Paul had dictated to Tertius the last words of his letter to the Romans, he said with a sigh to his amanuensis, “I know that’s going to be near impossible for them to understand, but, behold, Tertius, I show you a mystery. In time to come, the Lord will raise up commentators: Cranfield, Dunn, Haldane, Jewett, Schreiner, Wright, Uncle Tom Cobley, and all, and then at last the Lord’s people will come to understand what I meant.”

Not! The Church owes a debt to all those men named (except, perhaps, Uncle Tom Cobley), and to others before them. They have sharpened our understanding of various aspects of Paul’s letter. However, Paul dictated what he did in the confidence that his words and doctrine could be understood by the ordinary people of the church in Rome. Of course, we who live in a different time and speak a different language need some expert help to arrive at a more-or-less correct translation, but it is my contention that, since Paul had every intention to be plain and clear, what he wrote is largely self-interpreting. If we just start at the beginning and keep following Paul’s train of thought, we arrive at an understanding that is more than adequate to shape our faith and practice.

Our understanding of some details can be honed as new linguistic or cultural background comes to light, or someone offers a likely-looking ”new perspective” on this or that, but I am confident that no such new insight, nor discovery of a hitherto overlooked chiasm or other rhetorical device, will ever cause a Copernican revolution in the interpretation of Romans. Anyone who thinks that it might do so, has, I am sure, simply failed to pay sufficient attention to the flow of Paul’s own argument.

Likewise, the ever-increasing number of Romans commentaries is not an indication that it is difficult to understand; just that it contains some extraordinary depths within its plain wrapping. However, Paul’s approach was surely the same as when he preached to the Corinthians: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17). Anyone who approaches Romans with the mind-set that Paul’s principal meaning does not lie right on the surface, will certainly misunderstand it.

This new series of posts follows on from my “Crystal Clarity of Romans” series which covered chapters 1 to 8. Now, in chapters 9 to 11, we come to a place where, because of his depth of emotion, Paul does not set out the points he is making in a measured, linear way. He is never outstandingly good at that, and here he is more erratic than usual—which is a good thing, because it reminds us that we are dealing with profoundly important matters, not just theological abstractions.

It is still not difficult to understand him—his points still connect logically with each other, with his emotional state, and with what he has said in the preceding eight chapters. Nevertheless, I have entitled this set of blog posts “The Clarity of Romans 9–11”, omitting the word “crystal”. Paul’s meaning remains clear, but more work is required on the hearer’s part.

What the New Perspective Misses

I think that the insights given into Paul by N.T. Wright in (e.g.) Paul: Fresh Perspectives¹are extraordinarily valuable, but he misses something vital in his exposition of Paul and therefore his understanding of the meaning of justification falls short of the truth. My conclusion is that the traditional understanding of “justification by [personal] faith” is essentially correct, but Wright’s insights give a broader context in which to hold and apply that understanding.

The “creation and covenant” framework of Paul’s thinking, as made explicit by Wright, is an important addition to the vocabulary of discourse about Romans. It can guard Protestantism against the error of treating Romans as though it is almost entirely about individual salvation, with everything else as incidental, whereas the doctrine presented by Paul is cosmically greater than that, and individual salvation just one part.

Nevertheless, I don’t think that this “new” perspective quite deserves to be described as “new”. Made explicit in a new way?—yes, but having worked my way through Romans for this blog post series, it seems to me that anyone following Paul’s arguments from beginning to end, as I attempted to do, ought not to fail to intuit the greater background story. It can be synthesized from the totality of Paul’s teaching in Romans, and you don’t need to deliberately adopt a Jewish mindset to do so. Just use your Western, logically-trained mind and pay attention to what Paul says. 

After completing this series of posts on Romans 9 to 11, I plan to publish a post in which I will discuss that matter in greater detail. I am confident that my series of Romans posts, and traditional Protestant interpretation generally, do not impose a naïve and alien structure upon Paul’s words but accurately transmit truths that Paul understood to be vital. 

¹ Wright, N. T. Paul: Fresh Perspectives. SPCK, 2005.

Acknowledgements

Unless otherwise identified, English Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Greek text is from from the The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition. Copyright © 2010 by Society of Biblical Literature and Logos Bible Software

Image: “Clarity” flickr photo by Odd Wellies https://flickr.com/photos/rhubarbcrumbleandcustard/2722250234 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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{I} Israel’s Unbelief does not make God’s Promises Unreliable

 

{I} Thesis: Israel’s Unbelief does not make God’s Promises Unreliable

9th Subsidiary Thesis: (9:6)

It is not until Romans 9:6 that Paul tells us the thesis he is defending in this part of his letter, a thesis that links all three chapters, 9, 10, and 11:

Οὐχ οἷον δὲ ὅτι ἐκπέπτωκεν ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ. (Ouch hoion de hoti ekpeptōken ho logos tōu theou.)
It is not as though the word of God had failed (9:6a). The preceding 44 verses, beginning at 8:1, give us the context that shows why Paul needs to state and defend this assertion.

The section of Romans that we have as chapter 8 began with the claim, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1), and it ended, after Paul had added even more evidence that this was so, with the soaring statement that nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39).

It is evident, then, why the plight of Israel flew to Paul’s mind immediately after he had presented the Romans with such strong reasons for confidence in their eternal standing with God. Two millennia previously, God had made glowing promises to Abraham and his descendants, but it was already clear by the time Paul wrote that most first-century Jews had rejected Jesus and so were outside the sphere of God’s current blessing. The question that might have come to the Romans’ minds was, “If the Lord didn’t keep his promises to Israel, why should we be sure he won’t let us down, too?” That is the implicit question that Paul will answer in chapters 9‒11.


Image attribution: “Rainbow” flickr photo by pontla https://flickr.com/photos/pontla/15419521516 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Next: God is, and was always, Sovereign in the Making and Fulfilment of His Promises

{IA} Proof A—God is, and was Always, Sovereign in the Giving and Fulfilment of the Promises

{IA_1} The Promises to Abraham were not Unbounded (9:6b-9)

οὐ γὰρ πάντες οἱ ἐξ Ἰσραήλ, οὗτοι Ἰσραήλ οὐδ’ ὅτι εἰσὶν σπέρμα Ἀβραάμ, πάντες τέκνα, ἀλλ’· Ἐν Ἰσαὰκ κληθήσεταί σοι σπέρμα.
(ōu gar panties hoi ex Israēl, houtoi Israēl, oud’ hoti eisin sperma Abraam, pantes tekna, all’ En Isaak klēthēsetai soi sperma.)
not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” (9:6b-7).

  • The quotation from Genesis 21:12 provides the Scriptural evidence for the claims that Paul is making here and in verse 8.

τοῦτ’ ἔστιν, οὐ τὰ τέκνα τῆς σαρκὸς ταῦτα τέκνα τοῦ θεοῦ, ἀλλὰ τὰ τέκνα τῆς ἐπαγγελίας λογίζεται εἰς σπέρμα·
(tout’ estin, ōu tā tekna tēs sarkos tauta tekna tōu theou, alla tā tekna tēs epaggelias logizetai eis sperma)
—This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants(9:8).

  • Q.E.D.
  • 9:9 adds further background and needs no comment.

{IA_2} Uncompelled Election is seen in God’s Preference for Jacob over Esau (9:10-13)

οὐ μόνον δέ, ἀλλὰ καὶ Ῥεβέκκα … κοίτην ἔχουσα …, μήπω γὰρ γεννηθέντων μηδὲ πραξάντων τι ἀγαθὸν ἢ φαῦλον, ἵνα ἡ κατ’ ἐκλογὴν πρόθεσις τοῦ θεοῦ μένῃ, οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων ἀλλ’ ἐκ τοῦ καλοῦντος, ἐρρέθη αὐτῇ ὅτι Ὁ μείζων δουλεύσει τῷ ἐλάσσονι
(ōu Monon de, alla kai Rebekka … koitēn exousa,… mēpō gar gennēthentōn mēde praxantōn tī agathon ē phaulon, hina hē kat’ eklogēn prosthesis tōu theou menē, ouk ex ergōn all’ ek tōu kalountos, erresthē autē hoti Ho meizōn douleusei tō elassoni)
—Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger” (9:10-12).

  • “..before they … had done anything good or bad…” Someone determined to disagree with Paul, and reading the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis, might suggest that perhaps God foresaw the future acts of the two men and made his choice on that basis. That is not how Paul sees it. He sees it as a matter of the uninfluenced choice of God, “not because of works but because of him who calls”.
  • Some Greek texts have kakon (wicked) rather than phaulon (worthless). Whichever word Paul actually used, it would have made no difference to his conclusion.

καθὼς γέγραπται· Τὸν Ἰακὼβ ἠγάπησα, τὸν δὲ Ἠσαῦ ἐμίσησα.
(kathōs gegraptai, Ton Iakōb agapēsa, ton de Ēsau emisēsa.)
As it is written, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau” (9:13).

  • Commentators have suggested that this kind of “loved”/”hated” contrast was a Semitic idiom, and the “hated” does not mean the kind of deep antipathy that at first it seems to.
  • I don’t have the expertise to support or contradict that idea, but I think it is irrelevant to understanding the sweep of Paul’s meaning in this section. Even if the quoted Old Testament sentence is indeed making use of a Semitic idiom, Paul’s Gentile-background hearers in Rome may not have known that. Therefore, Paul’s words probably sounded as shocking in their ears as they do in ours today.
  • Regardless of how severely or gently Paul himself understood the words he quoted from Malachi (Malachi 1:2-3), he quotes them to support his assertion that God makes choices between people (or classes of people), and those choices are not influenced by anything outside of God himself. The quotation indeed serves that purpose, and we can leave the theodical task to Paul in the three verses that follow. (See next post).

A Note Concerning “Purpose”

It doesn’t make any difference to our ease of understanding the main point Paul is making in this Jacob vs Esau passage, but I think all our translations err by translating hina hē kat’ eklogēn prosthesis tōu theou menē in ways that may allow the impression that God’s purpose is to elect. That’s not the understanding that the Romans would have gained from Paul’s words, which more literally say, “…in order that the according-to-election purpose of God might stand”. It is God’s purpose that will stand, and, as it happens, the path toward that purpose involves the election to mercy of people who have no merit that could earn that favour.

And what did Paul understand God’s purpose to be? Though he does not use the word “purpose” in it, there is a passage in Romans 15 that tells us the answer: “Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy (15:8-9).

Putting that passage together with 9:11, God’s purpose is to save, and election is just a means to that end. As Michael Bird writes,

“When we think of God’s purposes, we are not to think of an abstract order of decrees, but God’s intention to bring salvation to the world through Abraham’s seed, through Israel, and the Messiah.”


(Bird, Michael F. Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016, p.328)

Image attribution: “Abrahams Dankopfer_ 1653_(Kunsthistorisches_Museum)” flickr photo by pixelsniper https://flickr.com/photos/89375755@N00/40563690965 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Next: Justice gives us no Entitlement to Mercy