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Archive for June, 2010

What power is sufficient to tackle humanity’s innate tendency to tribalism?

Tribalism is the ugly habit of drawing boundaries and making distinctions that enable you to define some people as ‘in’ and some people as ‘out’. It therefore matters a great deal, and for two reasons. On the one hand, the pattern of a person’s in-cluding and out-cluding is the expression of their deepest convictions about what is true and what matters – whether and how they behave at this point tells you a great deal about them; on the other hand, including or excluding people is a fundamental expression of love, or lack thereof, and since love is the basic Christian virtue – command # 2, or as John puts it, “whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 Jn 4.8) – failure to love is a serious failure.

Sometimes tribalism is as crude as racism – ‘our’ colour/race is in, and any other colour/race is out (for example, Jews and Gentiles in Ephesus). Sometimes tribalism is convictional, and takes the form of groups at ideological war with one another, as in party politics. And sometimes tribalism is as banal as me and my friends with whom I feel comfortable and trust, whereas ‘they’ are not from the same stable as me.

Paul is convinced that there is a power that can overcome the tendency to tribalism. It is the gospel of Christ, and in particular, the corporate reality that that gospel creates. Ephesians, where these issues are right on the surface, is clearest on this:

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph 2.14-16

Romans, which on my reading has equally significant ‘tribalism’ issues bubbling along just beneath the surface (in the form of Gentilizing – the opposite of Judaising), says much the same thing:

For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. (Rom 12.4-5)

Notice three things about this:

One effect of the achievement of God in Christ – the gospel – is to create a body, the body of Christ. In Christ, that is, in his body, is where salvation is to be found. That is why one author could write: “the nature of the new covenant drives us to the conclusion that there is a certain sense in which extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (translation: outside the church there is no salvation). Which New Perspective author wrote this? Again, Don Carson, in the same article ‘Reflections on Assurance’! Note very carefully, Paul is (of course) not saying that being a member of a group called the church is what saves a person, which would open the door to mere nominalism. However, he is saying that being in Christ by faith – united with him in his death and his resurrection (which is what saves a person) – necessarily includes membership of the body of Christ, because that is part of what it is to be in Christ. To be in Christ is to be made to be members one of another. To be a Christian is necessarily to be in the church, part of the one new humanity, a member of the body of Christ. I belong to them, and they belong to me – whether either of us likes it, or each other, or not – because we both belong to Christ.

A crucial thing follows from this.

Since it is the gospel that necessarily creates the church, it is also the gospel that determines the character of the life of the church. We must church by grace, precisely because we are saved by grace. And the flip side is true as well. When you don’t church by grace (ie when you act tribally), it is the reflection of the fact that you don’t really enact the truth (or perhaps even believe the truth) that we are saved by grace. What is it to church by grace? Many things, but it at least means that no one has any right to demand of someone else who confesses Christ, that they fulfil certain requirements before they stand fully justified before me as a Christian sister or brother (just like God didn’t do for us). It is Bonhoeffer who captures ‘church by grace’ best in the first chapter of his book Life Together – some selections:

Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity.

That dismisses once and for all every clamorous desire for something more. One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. [. . .] Just at this point Christian brotherhood is threatened most often at the very start by the greatest danger of all, the danger of being poisoned at its root, the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful idea of religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart for community with the spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood.

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of his grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Christ Jesus? Thus, the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together–the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.

Because Christ stands between me and others, I dare not desire direct fellowship with them. As only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can be saved only by Christ himself. This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love. The other person needs to retain his independence of me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became man died, and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

Every principle of selection and every separation connected with it that is not necessitated quite objectively by common work, local conditions, or family connections is of the greatest danger to a Christian community.

Church by grace gloriously kills tribalism. It does so because tribalism is built precisely on what a person is in him/her-self. And tribalism in church culture is equally built on “what a man [sic] is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety” – and we might add theology – as though those things constitute the basis of our community. This is why a church culture that operates tribally is a tragic denial of the gospel of grace that it seeks to proclaim, and that brought it into being in the first place.

By the way – this body also gathers.

I say that to highlight the fact that the gathering of the body is not the definition of the body, but one of its functions. In other words, an understanding of church built around the notion of ekklesia / gathering, will always be deficient. It will have failed to ask the prior crucial question (as Rob Doyle put it in his MTC lectures years ago) – what is it that gathers? And by placing gathering – which ends up being a decision I make on a Sunday morning / evening – the basis of a doctrine of church, we will tend towards a ‘resource’ view of church. The reason is that for busy people in a society hostile to the church, the question will always be close at hand, ‘why gather?’ And an answer which runs along the lines of ‘because it helps me to live my Christian life’ will not be sufficient, either theologically or practically. But without a better-grounded doctrine of the church, that kind of resource / functional answer is the only answer available.

Saved by grace, church by grace, bound together in Christ in grace. I love it!

PS. See here for a post by Andrew Errington (Moore college student) which critically examines the notion of assembly as the basic notion of church

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Hopeless miserable sinner? Sinless perfection? Are they the only two options for a Biblical understanding of what it means to live the Christian life?

Of course not! But when it’s set up like that, even implicitly, it means that if someone is heard to deny one, then they must be affirming the other, and that leads to trouble!

The Apostle Paul is not so binary. And it is his fundamental conviction that the Christian is found ‘in Christ’ that drives his understanding of the Christian life as neither one of hopeless miserable sin, nor a self-deluded sinless perfection, but something both richer, deeper and more complex.

It’s in Rom 6 that Paul starts to spell this out, although we have heard hints of it earlier in the letter. The tantalising references in Rom 2 to the fact that it is “the doers of the law who will be justified” (v. 13 – note this is co-incidence, not causality, Paul does not say that they will be justified on the basis of their doing of the law!); and those who are uncircumcised keeping the (righteous) requirements of the law, whose circumcision is of the heart in the Spirit, and who receives praise from God (v. 26, 29).

But Rom 6 begins Paul’s full answer to the question, ‘Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?’ In other words, does the fact that God’s grace abounds all the more where sin is (5.20), does that mean there is no place for holiness in the Christian life, that we should simply sit in sin now that we are justified and wait for more of God’s grace? Paul gives an emphatic “by no means!” And it is the reason for this curt response that is crucial – it’s because the same thing that brings us justification is the very thing that also leads us to not continue in sin – namely, being united with Christ. We are united with Christ in his death (for whoever has died is justified from sin – 6.7) and we are united with Christ in his resurrection (and are therefore alive to God – v. 11, and have been brought from death to life – v. 13). And because that is true of those who have been united with Christ, it simply follows that we are not to “let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (v. 13); for chillingly, you can tell who a person is a slave to by the obedience they offer, and the slavery to sin leads to death (v. 16, 21). But we have become slaves to God, the fruit of that in our lives is sanctification and the end is eternal life (v. 22).

This lays out the categories, but it does not yet depict either the heart of the problem or the source of the power. It is in chapter 7 that Paul shows why this didn’t work in the case of Israel, who was also called to be the servant of the Lord, freed from slavery. And the reason is that Israel was always “of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin” (7.14). Which is why the law only brought the knowledge of sin (3.20) – when law is added to flesh, even when the law is holy and just and good (and trying to keep it is likewise holy and just and good), solving the problem of flesh with the law is like putting out a fire with petrol – it makes things worse!

And so finally the threads are drawn together in Rom 8 – in Christ Jesus we are not condemned, because God has condemned the right problem (sin) in the right place (the flesh), having sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin offering (justification by atonement); and all this in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. What does Paul mean by this? Well, in being united to Christ, it means that the Spirit of Christ is in us (anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him – 8.9). And that means we are not in the flesh; we are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells (note the contrast with 7.17, 23 dwelling!) in us. And the crucial link between Rom 6 (union with Christ in death and resurrection) and Rom 8 (walking according to the Spirit and pleasing God) is that the Spirit is the resurrection Spirit. In being united to Christ in his resurrection and so being made alive to God (6.11, 13), it is “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead [who] dwells in us (8.11).

Which is why there really are only two ways to live! According to the flesh, in which case you will die; or according to the Spirit, in which case you will live (8.13) – which is just what Paul said in 6.15-23, except now with the full explanation of how this is possible, it is possible by the power of the Spirit. Of course, Paul is not saying that you live because you earn merit by your walking according to the Spirit. It’s exactly the opposite of that: we walk according to the Spirit because we live – are alive to God – by union with Christ in his death and resurrection, and the end result of that is eternal life (6.22).

So here is the battle with sin in the Christian life – by the Spirit, putting to death the deeds of the body (8.13). It is mortal combat; it is deep struggle; but it is neither hopeless miserable sinning (how can we who have died to sin go on living in it? Thanks be to God having once been slaves of sin … have become slaves of righteousness) nor is it sinless perfectionism – there will always be plenty of deeds of the body to put to death. It is life in the Spirit; it is the Christian life. Or as one author put it:

The period between Pentecost and Christ’s return is supremely the age of the Spirit who renews, convicts, cleanses empowers … It appears that a great deal of the debate over assurance has been controlled by forensic categories associated with justification and faith, but has largely ignored the categories or power and transformation associated with the Spirit and the new Covenant. A fundamental component of such themes is that the people of the new covenant are by definition granted a new heart and empowered by the Spirit to walk in holiness, to love righteousness, to prove pleasing to the Lord … [the promises of the new covenant] lead us to expect transformed lives. Indeed, it is precisely this unequivocal expectation that authorizes Paul to set up the tension we have already noted: the exhortations to live up to what we already are in Christ are predicated on the assumption that what we are in Christ necessarily brings transformation, so that moral failure is theologically shocking, however pragmatically realistic it may be.

Which New Perspective author wrote this? Actually, it was Don Carson, in his article, Reflections on Assurance. It sums it up well.

Hopeless miserable sinner? No, that just doesn’t do justice to what the Scriptures actually say. Sinless perfection? You’ve got to be kidding, theologically we groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (8.23), and in experience, we know all too well how far from that we are.

But a Spirit empowered, Spirit led life of putting to death the deeds of the body, the sin that clings so closely, knowing that united to Christ, we have not only died and been raised, but that the deepest way to speak of these things is to say that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.

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How to relate the great doctrines of justification by faith – the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, to those who have faith – and the atonement?

Paul’s answer is as clear as it is powerful – union with Christ.

It is Rom 5.12-21 that lay the foundations for this vital theological move for Paul. In-Adam-ness is paralleled with, but actually overwhelmed by (the free gift is not like the trespass – v. 15; the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin – v. 16)  in-Christ-ness, so that just as sin exercised dominion in death (in Adam), so grace might exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (v. 21).

It is Rom 6 that unfolds this reality. Union with Christ – an inner and spiritual reality which takes the outward and physical form of baptism (Rom 6.3), the public confession of faith – means that his history becomes our history: his death is our death, so that we have died to sin in him; his resurrection is our resurrection, so that we are alive to God in him. And Paul’s summary of this is 8.1-4: no condemnation (justification) for those in Christ Jesus. Why? Because God has already executed condemnation of sin in Christ Jesus – sent in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin offering (atonement) – so that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. In Christ, the condemnation of sin that he bore is also the condemnation of our sin. We are justified without righteousness; rather, we are justified by condemnation / atonement, in him.

It seems to me that the idea of imputation of the righteousness of Christ is a way of trying to get at this reality, but fails to precisely map the contours of Paul’s thought at this point.  Instead of understanding us-in-Christ, it posits something of Christ in us. This is just not how Paul expresses it. Note in particular that Paul doesn’t say, ‘there’s no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, because there’s nothing to condemn, since they have the required righteousness, Christ’s righteousness.’ This (or something like it) is what he should have said, had he been operating with the category of ‘the righteousness of Christ’, imputed to us. But he doesn’t, because the structure of his thought is different. In other words, it seems to me that in the case of the ungodly, justification is not the recognition of (an alien) righteousness, but justification despite the absence of righteousness, precisely since the condemnation that sin deserves has already been executed, and so counts for those who are in the ‘place’ where that fire of condemnation has burned. As Mark Seifrid (in his book Christ, our Righteousness, and co-editor of the 2 volume Justification and Variegated Nomism) comments, after affirming the intent of the doctrine of imputation but critiquing its form, “It is not so much wrong to use the expression ‘the imputed righteousness of Christ’ as it is deficient.” (p. 175)

What are its deficiencies? It seems to me that there are two (apart from the fact that the phrase never appears in Paul):

  1. What the concept of union with Christ is able to do (which the concept of imputation is not able to do) is make an organic link between the start of the Christian life and progress in the Christian life. In Christ we have died to sin, and have been made alive to God – hence (as an organic consequence) we are exhorted to not let sin reign in our mortal bodies but to present our members to God as instruments of righteousness. (Rom 6.12-14). Imputation has been caricatured as making obedience in the Christian life unimportant (if we already have a perfect righteousness on our account, why bother?) – and this is a caricature – but at the same time, it seems to me that it struggles to articulate an organic link to the ongoing Christian life. Paul is more integrated (without of course, ever making justification a product of sanctification).
  2. What the concept of union with Christ is able to do (which the concept of imputation is not able to do) is to make an organic link between the personal and individual start of the Christian life (faith enacted in baptism) and the corporate character of the Christian life. As in one (human) body we have many members, and not all members have the same function, so we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually, we are members one of another. (Rom 12.4-5). Union with Christ works itself out also as the proper basis for a doctrine of the church. Because of the individual (perhaps even individualistic?) nature of the imputation scheme, it again struggles to articulate an adequate Pauline doctrine of the church.

The Christian life and the church – next week’s posts. For now, three final thoughts.

First, does it matter whether you adopt a justification by atonement, or justification by imputation, scheme? At one level not really. As Lionel mentioned, it is an intra-evangelical discussion, both attempting to think through the deep theological structure of the work of Christ “for us”. However, at another level it does matter, at least in terms of the significant issue of evangelical method. There are always real costs to departing from the precise contours of the Bible’s thought-forms, and I think the imputation scheme does run into what you might call ‘integration problems’, as indicated above.

Second, when I said a few posts ago, that my entire new-perspectiveness was at that point on the table, that was in fact true. The outline of my doctrines of justification, atonement and their relationship is now clear, and is straightforwardly evangelical. I have never thought or taught any differently from this – much of the previous posts are copied-and-pasted from essays and talks written 15 years ago. Whatever the problems of the NPP idea of justification – and there are plenty – they are not my problems!

So third, how did the gossip and slander of which I have been complaining start? On reflection, I think it was partly my own naivete, and partly the tribalism that permeates our culture.

  • I was foolishly naive. I thought that some things written about the NPP inaccurately represented it, and said so. I may have been right about that, I may have been wrong. But either way, it never occurred to me that because I said (say) that NT Wright didn’t teach X in one of his books (where X is a false teaching), that anyone would read that as me therefore affirming X. So I didn’t clarify that. In the Christian scene from which I came, that kind of clarification wasn’t necessary. But I was naive in not doing so.
  • Because at the same time, we are part of a tribal city, and that tribalism infects us in the church as well. Tribalism is an approach to life which says, ‘unless you are from my sub-group, you’re not really to be trusted’. I wasn’t from a particular tribe; and that meant ‘guilty until proven innocent’. And because of my foolish naivete, I didn’t worry too much about proving my innocence. And so it began – guilty!

I am no longer naive! This series is part of trying to undo that foolishness on my part.

And just maybe also undoing something of the tribalism as well. But tribalism is far deeper than merely a cultural issue, it really is a function of our understanding of the Christian life and the church, which is where we head next.

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The Scriptures teach, and experience makes it painfully obvious, that where there is wrongdoing, especially serious wrongdoing in relation to a Holy God, which leads to a breach of relationship, something needs to happen to make things right again – it won’t happen automatically, by accident, or simply with the passing of time.

And what needs to happen is a sacrifice of atonement.

Atonement concerns the saving significance of the cross of Christ as a sacrifice for sins. As Paul continues to unfold the glorious righteousness of God in Rom 3, he finds its deepest expression in the the reality that God put forward Christ Jesus as “a sacrifice of atonement” or literally, as a ‘hilasterion’ (3.25).

The OT background against which this sacrifice of atonement is to be understood is rich.

  • Literally, the word means ‘mercy seat’, and therefore the thing that happened at the mercy seat, atonement. It goes back to Exod 25.17, 22, where Moses is told how to build the tabernacle, and especially Lev 16, which says what to do with it, particularly on the great day of atonement; the mercy seat was the place where the blood was sprinkled, and the result was Lev 16.29: This shall be a statute to you forever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. 30 For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the LORD. This is a hilasterion – the blood makes atonement at the place of atonement. In other words, what Paul is saying here is that Jesus is the place where God and sinful people meet, in such a way that instead of that meeting leading to judgment, it leads to cleansing and peace, at-one-ment.
  • The other great text that sheds light is Isa 40-55 – all the elements of what Isaiah has been saying are there, and focus more and more tightly on the suffering, sin bearing servant. Paul a number of times in Romans refers to Isa 53 – 4.25 (given up), 5.15, 19 (the many), 15.21 and at 10.16 he quotes it. In other words, Jesus is a hilasterion, a sacrifice at atonement precisely as the suffering servant, Isa 53.5: But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

In other words, what the blood of Jesus does is to deal with both sides of the breach of relationship – God’s and ours. The sacrifice of atonement both turns away the wrath of God, and deals with sin. Or to put that in technical language, Jesus’ blood as a sacrifice both propitiates God’s wrath and expiates our sin. Both are important – turning away the wrath of someone, that is propitiating them, without dealing with the sin is what we call corruption, a pay off, bribery, and God has none of that. Dealing with sin and the stain it causes, that is expiating them, without recognising that what is at stake here is real visceral wrath, is merely impersonal, as though God were not directly and personally involved, but if there’s one thing that is clear from the first few chapters of Romans, it’s that God takes sin very personally, and with great wrath.

Three other comments are particularly important in relation to the cross of Christ as the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

  1. A shorthand way of referring to the sacrifice of atonement is simply ‘blood’ (3.25, 5.9). In the context of atonement, this signifies the death of the victim (rather than the releasing of its life). It is dying-under-wrath blood.
  2. Second, this is both a substitutionary and a representative death – substitutionary means, he did it instead of me, so that I don’t have to do it. Representative is even stronger – it means that in him doing, I have done it, in him.
  3. Third, it’s all God’s idea, he put forth Christ Jesus. In particular, this guards against any idea of ‘nice’ Jesus protecting us from ‘nasty’ wrathful God. God himself propitiates himself, as an act of the great love with which he loved us.

To bring this post and the last post together: what the Apostle says is that we are justified by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, the sacrifice of atonement put forward by God (3.24-25) or in compressed form, “we have been justified by his blood” (Rom 5.9). We are justified by the atonement.

The crucial question becomes – how? How are we to relate the doctrines of justification and atonement? That is the next post.

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The astonishing claim of the Apostle Paul is that God justifies the ungodly (Rom 4.5) This is the miracle of grace – salvation belongs to the Lord – and without it, who could be saved?

But, how does it happen?

To understand, we need to get a handle on a cluster of words, which all have the same stem in Greek, but which find distinct English translations – righteous, righteousness, justification and to justify.

Since there’s rarely any point reinventing the wheel, I’ll simply point to Lionel’s pieces (originally a series on the Sola Panel) and say that on the whole I think he does a good job of laying out the meaning of these Bible words, at least in the first 5 posts, and in relation to the justification of the godly.

However, things get more complicated when it comes to justifying the ungodly – the very thing that a judge must never do (Exod 23.7, Prov 17.15,  Isa 5.22-23). So here you have to make a choice. On the one hand, you can stay with the usage in the standard case, that has the judge justifying the (already) righteous (who bring their righteousness with them to court), and then say that the ungodly will have to find another righteousness to bring with them to God’s court – the righteousness of Christ. Alternatively, you can say that in the case of the ungodly, they have no righteousness to bring to God’s court – they are ungodly – but that on the basis of the sacrifice of Christ, they are justified, and as a consequence of that verdict, they receive the gift of righteousness, a right standing before God.

I think the second way is more consistent with the NT depiction of how God justifies the ungodly. Notice 3 things about this (we’ll set aside the question of atonement, the relationship between justification and atonement and the notion of the righteousness of Christ til later in the week, and focus on justification per se here):

  1. The verb ‘to justify’ refers to a ‘reality creating’, not simply a ‘reality recognising’, event.
  2. What it creates is righteousness – a right standing before God, whereas previously a person did not stand right before God.
  3. God justifies ‘from’ or ‘out of’, that is, on the basis of, faith.

A few things about each of these points.

1. The verdict of the judge is what is called a ‘performative declaration’ – that is, the words of the judge do something, create a new state of affairs, constitute a reality. This is to be contrasted with the view that to justify someone is merely an issue of knowledge, of recognising what is already the case. Another way of saying this is that the verb ‘to justify’ is a transfer term; to justify a person is to transfer her or him into a new place or status, namely ….

2. … that of being right with the judge / the court / God. This is true whether it’s the godly being justified or the ungodly. Something has come into being which did not exist prior to the verdict being delivered – a right standing before the court / judge, and it comes consequent upon the judgment. We see this in Rom 5 – the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift (picking up Rom 3.24 – the free gift is to be justified) brings justification. The same pattern is repeated in vv. 17, 18, 19. Justification, righteousness, being made righteous (not in a moral sense but in the sense of standing right before God) – these are all the consequence of the free gift, namely (3.24, 5.1) being justified.

3. The faith ‘out of’ which God justifies the ungodly is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. In my judgment, the starting point for understanding the crucial 3.21-26 is Rom 1.17, which has the curious phrase “the righteousness of God is revealed through (in Greek, ‘ek’) faith for (in Greek, ‘eis’) faith. I think this is a compressed form of what Paul then unfolds in Rom 3.22: “the righteousness of God through (in Greek, ‘dia’, with equivalent meaning to ‘ek’  – the ground of) the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to (‘eis) all who believe.” The faithfulness of Jesus Christ – his obedience unto death, even death on a cross – is then paralleled by 2 other equivalent constructions – literally “through (dia) the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 24), and “through the faithfulness in his blood” (v. 25). ‘Blood’ of course is an atonement reference (and picks up  the ‘sacrifice of atonement reference earlier in v. 25), and we’ll come back to atonement and its relation to justification later in the week. For now, note that Paul concludes the paragraph with the affirmation that God is the justifier of  “the one who is of the faithfulness of Jesus” (v. 26). What’s more, boasting is excluded by the law of this faithfulness (v. 27) because God justifies both the circumcised and the uncircumcised on the grounds of this faithfulness (v. 30).

Of course, there is much more to be said to justify this reading! But enough to say that apart from this being a grammatically legitimate rendering of the Greek, the advantage this has is that it puts our faith where it belongs – necessary, but secondary – secondary to the work of Christ. We feel this when we find ourselves speaking of justification by faith, and then needing to show that faith is not then made into a work (which of course it’s not); and we feel this when we speak of justification ‘by grace through faith’ (Eph 2.8), which puts our faith where it belongs, but qualifies the straightforward phrase ‘justification by faith’. Don’t misunderstand this, our believing is still necessary and it is there – “for all who believe” (v. 22) – but it is the instrument of justification, not its grounds. What justification is really ‘by’ is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, to all who believe.

So, in very broad brush strokes, that’s what I think of justification – what it is (the creation of a new reality, namely right standing before God); its character (it is forensic, that is a judgment rendered by God the judge); its basis (the faithfulness of Jesus Christ – another way of saying this is to say we are justified by his blood Rom – 5.9); and its instrument (our faith – it’s to all who believe). None of this seems anything to me other than dead centre Reformed.

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In the hope of clarity, I’ve added this rule (in a response to a comment)

I’m going to make it a rule that from now on, we don’t use the term ‘New perspective’ or equivalent, nor refer to ‘NT Wright’ – any post that does I will ask the person to re-submit. The problem is, we think we know what we are talking about when we use these terms, and can use them as a way of expressing ourselves and understanding others. Given that the content of those terms is itself in dispute, that cannot be anything other than the way of confusion.

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I’m an optimistic guy by temperament, so it’s more than likely that I have over-read this, but …

I think we have something of a minor breakthrough – it’s in the second exchange of comments between Tony Payne and myself.

The nub of it is this:

If you ask me whether I hold ‘the position that Rob Smith thinks is NTW’s view of justification’ (do you feel how ridiculous this gets?) then the answer is emphatically, only, always, never-any-different, don’t-even-think-about-it NO! Never have, never will.

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