Not an Invented Sort of Religion (Horton)

Michael Horton

In the opening section of Michael Horton’s two volume work on justification he gives a helpful explanation of this doctrine in contrast to the newer perspectives on Paul:

So I remain unmoved by dismissals of the Reformation’s formulation of justification and it’s broader quest as little more than the product of an early modern obsession with the self. “Tortured subjectivity” is what you get when “God is dead,” while you nevertheless feel a sense of guilt and despair that vaguely comes from somewhere other than your inner self or the people around you. Say whatever you like about the Protestant Reformers, but they were not obsessed with introspection. On the contrary, they were gripped by the experience of meeting a stranger, an other, to whom they were accountable. Luther didn’t fear an inner judgment but a real one on the great stage of history, with banners flying and a fight to the death. Whoever this God was, he was not manipulable by the subjective wants or wish-projections of mortals. One would never invent this sort of religion as therapy for self-improvement, self-empowerment, and tranquility of mind. And regardless, Luther would not have recognized such a religion, much less sympathize with it. If there are lingering doubts about that, I hope that this will leay them to rest.

Michael Horton, Justification (vol. 1) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), p. 23.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54105


Wright, Reformation, and Gospel

The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ I’ve found Cornelis Venema’s The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ to be a great Reformed resource for interacting with recent revisions of justification as found in the New Perspectives on Paul.  Venema’s chapter describing N. T. Wright’s perspective on Paul is especially helpful, clear, and fair.  As I read this chapter (5), I tried to capture the main points by writing marginal notes.  I’m going to put those marginal notes below along with a summary of Venema’s comments, which I hope is beneficial for our readers.  I strongly recommend getting this book and reading the chapter; these points obviously need to be explained more than I do here.

What are some of the main points of N. T. Wright’s perspective on Paul?

1) First-century Judaism was not legalistic.  Wright’s perspective is that Paul was not concerned about Jewish legalism because Judaism in the first century wasn’t really legalistic.  Wright says it this way: “The tradition of Pauline interpretation has manufactured a false Paul by manufacturing a false Judaism for him to oppose.”   One implication of this perspective of Wright is that the Reformers and the Reformed Confessions are completely wrong in their interpretation of Paul, works, the law, faith, and justification.

2) Paul was not opposing legalism, but nationalism.  Paul’s problem with Judaism was not ‘works-righteousness’ or ‘legalism,’ but perverted and prideful nationalism.  For Paul, Wright says, the law doesn’t have to do with legalism, but national privilege of which the Jews became proud.  One implication here is that the Reformers and the Reformed Confessions are wrong when they talk about legalism, antinomianism, justification, and Christian liberty.

3) The gospel is not primarily about salvation of sinners.  Instead, for Wright, the gospel is about who is Lord.  The principle message of the gospel is that Jesus is Lord and King who gained a victory in the cross and resurrection.  But the gospel does not really have to do with how to be saved, or how to find favor with God.  That, in Wright’s perspective, distorts and narrows the gospel into individualism.  One implication here is that the Reformers and Reformed Confessions are mistaken when they say the gospel has to do with a sinner being saved from sin, God’s wrath, and hell.

4) Justification is not about soteriology, but ecclesiology.  In other words, Wright says that Paul’s doctrine of justification doesn’t have much to do with being accepted by God.  Rather, justification is about who belongs to “the community of the true people of God.”  “Justification,” Wright notes, “is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God, but of how you tell who belongs to that community.”  Again, one implication here is that the Reformed and confessional discussions of justification as a judicial act of God’s grace alone through faith alone are totally misreading Paul and therefore incorrect.  In fact, Wright clearly says that the Reformation tradition turned the doctrine of justification “into its opposite.”

5) God’s righteousness is not something he can give to his people.  Wright’s view is that “the righteousness of God” means only that God is faithful to his promises, that he is trustworthy.  Wright denies that the righteousness of God can be credited or imputed to the account of a sinner.  Wright doesn’t deny that there is some forensic aspect to “the righteousness of God,” but he does deny imputation.  One implication here is that the Reformers and Reformed Confessions are wrong when they talk about imputation (i.e. our sins being imputed to Christ and his righteousness being imputed to us).

6) Faith is a badge of membership, not an instrument that receives a gift from God.  The nationalistic Jews saw the works of the law as something that distinguished them from Gentiles and thus Gentiles were excluded from the covenant community, in Wright’s perspective.  However, since Christ has come, the only badge of belonging to the covenant community is faith.   This of course goes against the grain of the Reformers and the Reformed confessions, which explain that saving faith is an instrument that receives God’s free gift of righteousness and shows itself by good works.

7) Substitutionary atonement isn’t overly important.  For Wright, the main point of Christ’s death and resurrection was a fulfillment of Israel’s exile and restoration, but not necessarily a substitutionary atonement for condemned sinners.  Christ’s death and resurrection are the means whereby the promise of the covenant is extended to God’s people worldwide, but not necessarily a propitiative, expiative, and penal substitution through which the curse was removed for sinners.  Since Wright’s definitions of justification and faith aren’t primarily about salvation from sin, so his discussion of Christ’s death and resurrection isn’t primarily about salvation from sin.  Obviously, the Reformers and the Reformed confessions very much stress substitutionary atonement.

All of this information is found in chapter five of Venema’s book, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ.  I’ve edited it to keep it brief, but again, I recommend reading it for yourself.  I trust the perceptive reader will now at least begin to understand why confessional Reformed, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Lutheran churches have strongly spoken out against the New Perspectives on Paul and N. T. Wright’s revision of these key Christian doctrines.  N. T. Wright’s views are critical of and contrary to Reformation doctrine.  One cannot hold to the truths of the Reformation and to Wright’s revisions; it is logically impossible.  Both cannot be right.

And as our regular readers know, I’m with the Reformers and the Reformed confessions.  I believe they are much closer to Paul’s teaching than that of the NPP and N. T. Wright.  Venema’s book has been helpful for me in this area.  The Gospel of Free Acceptance In Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006).

rev shane lems

Justification, Imputation, and St. Paul

  Herman Bavinck said this around 100 years ago – it has to do with justification by faith alone and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

“…It is said in Rom. 4:5 and 5:6 that God justifies the ungodly.  It is impossible…to use stronger language.  The opponents of imputed righteousness should not lodge their objection against Luther and Calvin but against Paul.”


The quote is found in Bavinck’s outstanding discussion of justification: Reformed Dogmatics IV.213.

shane lems

sunnyside, wa

Script(ing) and [Dia]loging Post/modern: Post-colonial Other(s)

Maybe some of you have read this article by Stephen Katz back in the 90’s titled “How to Speak and Write Postmodern” (I’d add “Blog” to “Speak and Write”).   If not, you must take 10 minutes out of  the day to read it.  It is hilariously true.  Here’s one paragraph to get you interested if you want to learn how to write/speak/blog like a good postmodern voice.

First, you need to remember that plainly expressed language is out
of the question. It is too realist, modernist and obvious.
Postmodern language requires that one uses play, parody and
indeterminacy as critical techniques to point this out. Often this
is quite a difficult requirement, so obscurity is a
well-acknowledged substitute. For example, let’s imagine you want
to say something like, “We should listen to the views of people
outside of Western society in order to learn about the cultural
biases that affect us”. This is honest but dull. Take the word
“views”. Postmodernspeak would change that to “voices”, or better,
“vocalities”, or even better, “multivocalities”. Add an adjective
like “intertextual”, and you’re covered. “People outside” is also
too plain. How about “postcolonial others”? To speak postmodern
properly one must master a bevy of biases besides the familiar
racism, sexism, ageism, etc. For example, phallogocentricism
(male-centredness combined with rationalistic forms of binary logic).

Finally “affect us” sounds
like plaid pajamas. Use more obscure verbs and phrases, like
“mediate our identities”. So, the final statement should say, “We
should listen to the intertextual, multivocalities of postcolonial
others outside of Western culture in order to learn about the
phallogocentric biases that mediate our identities”. Now you’re
talking postmodern!

After I read it, I thought of a few things: on the humorous side, Kramer on Seinfeld and certain Simpsons episodes.  On the less humorous side it led me to think about how the New Perspectives on Paul and its younger children speak in such ambiguously “fresh” terms.

NOTE: I was made aware of this article while reading Courage to be Protestant by David Wells, which I’ll comment on in the near future.

shane lems

sunnyside wa