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Archive for May, 2010

Starting with the punch line is low on drama, but makes up for it in clarity. So here’s the punch line.

For many people, the New Perspective on Paul (just NPP from now on) has come to mean this – ‘get in by grace, stay in by merit’. It’s not actually quite put like this, normally it’s ‘get in by grace, stay in by works’ but it’s more accurate to say merit. Since this is the popular understanding, I am going to refer to this as NPP (pop).

What does it mean? The NPP (pop) is the view that the beginning of the Christian life is by the grace of God – he calls us to restored right relationship with himself through the work of Christ by the preaching of the gospel. But, so the story goes, the NPP (pop) holds that the way a person stays right with God is by doing good works that earn his ongoing favour – hence ‘stay in by merit’.

The phrase ‘get in by grace, stay in by works’ was coined by EP Sanders, as his way of summarising what he saw as the pattern of 1st century Judaism. For what it’s worth, he meant ‘works’ in a way that didn’t imply merit.

So, to get it clear right up front (and I hope this is the most defensive I get) – I have never thought, taught, encouraged, preached, written or even muttered anything even in the same galaxy as NPP (pop). Hundreds of my sermons are on line, plenty of stuff I have written is on line. Not a single syllable will go anywhere near this – never have, never will. Thousands (rhetorical hyberbole?) of people who have listened to me teach sometime over the last 20 years at Sydney Uni, Barneys and CCIW would know this. I have only ever taught, and only ever will teach, that salvation is by grace alone, on the basis of Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, through faith alone, on the authority of the Scriptures alone – in fact, I had the joy of preaching a series on the ‘solas’ years ago (before the sola panel made it trendy) which makes this all pretty clear.

If you think NPP = NP (pop), then it’s got nothing to do with me – in fact, even to say it, as though it could, feels somehow dirty.

If you have said something along the lines “Katay is new perspective”, and what you meant by “new perspective” was something like NPP (pop), then you have got me hopelessly wrong , and have probably done me wrong – please stop! You may even like to fess up in the comments! On the other hand, if you hear someone say it, please stop them – or you may even like to ‘out’ them in the comments (after asking them to fess up).

It’s time for this nonsense to stop.

On Wednesday, I’ll start at the beginning, and say more about what I do think, rather than just what I don’t think.

But, just in case it needs to be said again, I do not and never have held  NPP (pop). Can we let it drop for good now?

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There is something inevitably self-defeating about defending yourself.

The very act positions you where you don’t want to be – in the dock, under accusation, needing to offer some explanation, as though the texture of Christian fellowship easily included a kind of questioning of others. And besides, half the people who overhear might not even have heard the accusation, but now they have, and mud sticks. Most awkward, defending yourself positions you as someone worth defending, instead of an ‘unworthy servant’ – there are far more interesting things to talk about!

And yet …

Not defending yourself – especially in a small-town culture like Sydney evangelicalism – just allows talk to turn to rust and become permanently attached.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Well, for better or worse, I’ve decided that it’s time to go on the defensive – and yet at every point, to try to avoid defensiveness! A thin line.

Background – for years now, a simple equation has been made about me: Katay = New Perspective, New Perspective = bad; therefore … . It started at college – 1994 to be precise – when some of the students from a different university to mine decided that I wasn’t quite kosher. They were part of a big and chattering scene, and it’s kind of gone on from there. I don’t suppose I helped a great deal – college is a heady place of ideas, and it can be hard to get a grip, and I wasn’t that troubled by their chatter.

Of course, there’s no great problem with chatter in itself. Community always includes talking about others, and therefore being talked about, and the Christian intent is to do it in a godly way. The primary rule is to make sure that the significance of what’s said is matched by the seriousness of the attempt to verify – saying someone is lousy at tip footy hardly matters; saying someone is a dangerous heretic matters a great deal, and only gets to be said after serious investigation.

The catalyst – over the last few years, I’ve heard on and off reports from people saying that they had been recommended not to join the fellowship here because of the equation. That seems to have intensified recently. Being hurt personally is one thing; having the church you love and serve potentially hurt is another.

And so, the next few posts will be my effort to set the record straight – but not only that. Record straightening is almost always boring. Rather, I’ll have a go at something positive, saying bit by bit what I think – and have always thought, because I haven’t changed my mind about any of this stuff – Jesus and Paul taught about justification, salvation, the law, the Christian life, sanctification, assurance, merit, works, grace and faith, amongst other things! If you’re into this, you might find it stimulating. Feel free to interact. If not, I’ll see you in a few weeks!

Either way, going on record feels like an interesting experience.

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Evangelising the GFC

I am in Melbourne for 2 days, being trained in mentoring by Arrow Leadership Australia – a great couple of days of input.

This evening, we heard a talk by an outstanding economist and Christian. He gave a great analysis of the GFC, and then spoke about the evangelistic opportunities it created. It was so much better than ‘we told you not to be greedy’!

His starting point was the way that the GFC elicited 2 remarkable responses:

  • moral outrage – those bankers were wrong!
  • a security shake – my future / super / security was / could have been taken away in a falsh!

Both of these provide fascinating opportunities for the gospel.

First, the moral character of the outrage provides an ‘in’ to asking people the ground of their morality; what’s more, he made some valuable points about the way that we were all complicit in the GFC, that is, both the public (who drove the demand for dodgy loans, and investments in dodgy packets of loans) and the financial institutions – and therefore, the issue is, where is guilt dealt with?

And second, is there anything that really is secure?

It was much richer than that, of course, and a great model for social comment leading to gospel proclamation.

For a similar but broader take, you might check out a paper I wrote a couple of years ago entitled ‘Does God believe in capitalism’. It’s on our CCIW website here.

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We looked at the parable of the talents last Sunday. I found it helpful to do the research, and then discuss with people during the week.

And it sparked this thought.

from flickr by nkimadams

Hell is the state of judgment, consequent on the personal wrath of God. Any attempt to water down either the personal nature of the judgment (as in the propitiation / expiation debate of the mid-20th century) or the wrathfulness of it must fail Biblically.

However, given that pole in the ground, there is another way to sub-Biblical.

So often, because judgment is massively resisted in our culture, we try to bolster it by emphasising the sheer holiness of God, and therefore his absolute right to judge, and the wickedness in light of that holiness of even the smallest sin. This attains rhetorical over-reach when we say things like ‘all sins are equal in God’s sight’, or ‘we’re all as bad as Hitler’. (Jesus’ distinction between gnats and camels makes these immediately false).

What’s missing here? There is another aspect to the Biblical teaching about the judgment of hell which we need also to retain, alongside the personal wrathfulness. Namely, that the intrinsic character of hell matches the intrinsic character of sin.

The theme of hell-as-exclusion/separation captures this point. That is, since the essence of sin is the rejection of the saving Lordship of God, the essence of judgment and hell is fulfilment of that rejection, in being separated from the life and love of God.

Of course, it is CS Lewis who emphasises (perhaps lop-sidedly) this point:

Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live for ever. Perhaps my bad temper or my jealousy are gradually getting worse-so gradually that the increase in seventy years will not be very noticeable. But it might be absolute hell in a million years: in fact, if Christianity is true, Hell is the precisely correct technical term for what it would be.

or again

“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others… but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God “sending us” to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud. “

or again

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’

The problem with the rhetoric is not only that it is sub-Biblical when isolated from this second emphasis, but that it is unbelievable (or rather, it’s unbelievable because it’s sub-Biblical). It smacks of sheer arbitrariness – ‘the smallest sin deserves hell because God says it does’ – or what in philosophy is called voluntarism.

We only capture the Biblical teaching about hell when we speak of both the personal wrath of God in judgment, as well as the intrinsic correlation between the sin and the judgement.

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I read the chapter I mentioned in the last post – unfortunately, an interesting but ultimately not-especially-enlightening wander through some recent philosophy.

I suspect that Bruce McCormack has a significant piece of the puzzle! He’s next.

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I ripped this off from the opening sentences of Chap 4 of Vanhhozer’s book, First Theology:

Assumptions about the way God relates to the world lie behind every doctrine in systematic theology. The decision one makes as to how to conceive this relation is arguably the single most important factor in shaping one’s theology.

And, for that matter, I would argue it’s the most important factor in shaping one’s pastoral practice and ministry leadership.

Why?

Because both pastoral practice and ministry leadership are all about seeking to be a good and faithful servant of the living and sovereign God, who is himself powerfully active by his Spirit through his word.

And what that means is that how you understand his activity in relation to your activity will profoundly affect the way you do things. In particular, if you conceive of the relation in zero-sum terms – that when you are active, God is not, you kind of ‘crowd him out’; and vive-versa, when he is active you are not – then you’re in big trouble!

Pastorally, this emerges most when trying to speak with people about suffering. Their questions almost always include ‘why did God let this happen / do this?’ And if you have a zero-sum assumption, you will have no answer. The problem is the structure of the question itself – it assumes that because God is active, there are no other factors to speak of.

Likewise, in a ministry leadership context, when someone gives an answer to any challenge, vision, goal or activity, ‘It’s the work of the Holy Spirit’, they have bought into a zero-sum assumption, thinking that to answer ‘the Holy Spirit’ is to have answered the question.

What’s needed is a theology that takes with full seriousness (actually full joy) the utter sovereign goodness, power and knowledge of God, without at the same time, pressing that in such a way that it excludes all other factors.

Phil 2.12-13 is beautifully clear about this:

12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

We work furiously hard – with fear and trembling – not despite the fact that God is at work, but precisely because he is at work – and not just at work, but at work internally, in the wellsprings of our being.

Get this one right, and many potholes are avoided!

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I’ve started reading a troubling book by Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great. His latest research project looks at the other side of the hill – How the Mighty Fall – and the book dissects the pathology of decline. It happens in 5 stages.

First, ‘hubris born of success.’ The very success of a company leads to a kind of overconfidence and a turning from asking the penetrating questions to try to understand why things are going on, to a superficial rhetoric of success (we’re a success because we do this), and because successful enterprises have momentum, things can go well for quite a while.

Stage 2: This hubris from stage 1 can lead straight into the second stage, which is ‘the undisciplined pursuit of more’. This stage is marked by a straying from discipline and creativity to undisciplined leaps. It turns out that the biggest issue facing companies is not complacency ie. not changing adequately in time. Rather, far more dangerous is overreaching, too much change of the wrong kind without proper analysis and discipline, particularly where there is an obsession with growth.

The third stage is ‘denial of risk and peril’. This is a stage of denying serious internal warning signs, particularly if things are still looking fairly good in a superficial and external way. It’s the lack of critical analysis (and certainly self-criticism) which leads away from the hard-nosed, fact-based dialogue which characterises high performance teams, and to a dangerous taking of risks that are unsupportable.

Stage 4 is ‘grasping for salvation once things start going really bad’. When the inevitable occurs and a company finds itself in very serious trouble, there is a very big question: what will happen next? Sometimes, this re-invigorates discipline, but so often at this point Collins notes the companies he talks about grasp at saviours, charismatic visionaries, bold but untested strategies, radical transformation or dramatic cultural revolution or some ‘game-changing’ acquisition. But this grasping at silver bullet solutions can only make matters worse, which leads to:

The last stage, stage 5, ‘capitulation to irrelevance or death’. Bad!

A Diocese (or for that matter, a church) is not a company, and the rules are slightly different. However, it’s ringing warning bells for me!

PS it’s no answer to say that God is the sovereign Lord of the church. That is absolutely true! But it may be that in his sovereign Lordship, he allows particular churches / denominations, once mighty, to fall. He has in the past.

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